Whether and to what degree countries have been able to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and ameliorate its enormous political, social and economic ramifications should determine how countries are classified in the future. The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the fact that old, weathered binaries like developed versus developing (or “emerging”) countries no longer hold relevance.
Rugged and unbridled capitalism has been encoded deep within America’s political DNA almost since its inception as a nation-state. This has exposed the inability of America’s fragmented healthcare sector to respond to the pandemic. The for-profit motive has meant that hospitals did not maintain stocks of personal protective equipment or ventilators.
For decades, there has been a carefree osmosis between American big business and its political class. This has prevented successive American administrations from inserting themselves too strongly into areas of economic activity dominated by the private sector (e.g., healthcare) or levying more stringent regulations. Even the mainstream Left in America shies away from a full-throated endorsement of universal healthcare. At the same time, American politicians continue to debate whether to regulate big tech even as social media platforms are used to derail America’s democracy.
Arab Gulf monarchies, by contrast, have chosen to follow a Singapore-style corporatist model where the state, in effect, runs for-profit conglomerates. This perhaps explains why countries in the Gulf such as the UAE have been able to marshal significant private-sector resources and expertise toward combating the pandemic. Nevertheless, low oil prices and an exodus of white-collar expatriates mean that these countries too will need to reinvent their economic models very soon.
Contrast the American type of political economy with France or Scandinavian countries. In these countries, sector-by-sector collective bargaining by labor has meant decent wages and better working conditions. Unlike Americans, Scandinavians do not need to work at two jobs just to put food on the table while a small slice of the population controls vast swathes of the economy. In several European countries, healthcare is regarded as a public good whose provision is seen as the state’s fundamental duty. This is not to suggest that these models are perfect. Unlike America, France’s official data on income inequality does not capture racial disparity. French nationalism and the institutions that flow out of it simply do not see race. This does not augur well for racial harmony or economic equality – both closely intertwined in France and the US.
The pandemic has also revealed whether the governing models of different countries are fit for purpose. It is no longer sufficient to classify countries simply as liberal democracies or illiberal autocracies. Indeed, demagogues like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Narendra Modi of India and Viktor Orban of Hungary have all taken a sledgehammer to their countries’ democratic institutions in the recent past and all emerged via the ballot box.
Another way of classifying countries politically could be via their governance models. American federalism, with its strong local and state governments, ought to have been a more competent model to combat the pandemic. However, its designers probably did not anticipate the dysfunctions of a two-party system. American federalism, coupled with its two-party system and with a megalomaniacal president at the helm, is the key reason why the country has such a dismal record when it comes to tackling the pandemic. On the other hand, strong top-down actions by centralized states in Vietnam and South Korea have seen these countries combat the pandemic rather successfully.
Only a single-party dictatorship like China could have subjected its population to mass surveillance and stringent lockdowns. In Vietnam, entire districts were sealed by the government, with no one allowed to enter or leave. Actions taken by the Chinese and Vietnamese states would have been politically unpalatable in a democracy. Yet they worked.
But this is not to rubbish the virtues of liberal, open democracies, for the flip side to this argument is that the virus spun out of control in its early days precisely because China is not an open society. If the virus had broken out in a more open society, the press and civil society would have been the first to raise the alarm.
The individual history of any country also has to be taken into account. The reason why South Koreans downloaded contact-tracing apps en masse and agreed to temporary restrictions on their liberties is because there exists a high level of trust between citizens and the state. Contrast this with the anti-mask movement in the US, where suspicion of government has deep historical roots.
There are also wide disparities within “developing” countries such as India. While the number of infections continues to skyrocket throughout the country, the southern state of Kerala has won international plaudits for its successful management of the pandemic. It did this through decades-long and bipartisan public investment in primary healthcare closely linked with empowered local governance. As a consequence, there is strong public trust in government institutions in Kerala; the state has human development indicators parallel to those in the West.
The pandemic has been a stringent stress-test for political and economic models. “Developed” democracies like the US have failed miserably in combating the virus, whereas “developing” non-democracies have managed well. Should this outcome-based approach be the basis on which to develop a new classification for countries? It is a question worth considering.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.