Commentary: COVID-19 has laid a political minefield for many major countries

Commentary: COVID-19 has laid a political minefield for many major countries

Hopefully, its defeat will show the worth of intelligent and honest government, says the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens.

US President Donald Trump proclaims friendship with China's President Xi Jinping but their
US President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping. (Photo: AFP/Nicolas ASFOURI)

LONDON: So much for the sanctity of national sovereignty. Viruses do not respect state frontiers; nor do they pay heed to the anti-immigrant banners waved aloft by a generation of populist leaders.

The worldwide spread of coronavirus has instead given eloquent expression to the stubborn fact of international interdependence.

Donald Trump’s America First policy has offered scant protection against the outbreak. This is also the president who has been pressing for cuts in US funding for the World Health Organization, the UN body coordinating the international response.

All in all, Mr Trump has been flat-footed in his attempt to the dismiss the crisis as “a problem that’s going to go away”.

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Until this week Boris Johnson was striking the same insouciant pose. The prime minister is busy severing Britain’s ties with the EU. Brexit will not keep the virus at bay.

Mr Trump’s wall along the US-Mexican border and Mr Johnson’s promise to “take back control” from the EU are turning out to be expensive acts of powerlessness.

Mr Johnson has been lucky. He has been rescued so far by the intelligent planning and presentation of his health minister, Matt Hancock. Mr Trump may well be in deeper trouble.

A MEDICAL AND ECONOMIC EMERGENCY

The virus has reached more than 60 countries. It is now impossible to track the source of each infection. Britain’s National Health Service has classed the outbreak as the highest level of medical emergency.

The United States is now facing a potential coronavirus epidemic
The United States is now facing a potential coronavirus epidemic. (File photo: AFP/Frederic J. BROWN)

The evidence so far suggests the mortality rate will turn out to be low — below 1 per cent — but health systems in many nations could become overwhelmed.

The economic consequences are obvious enough. A simultaneous shock to supply (all those closed Chinese factories) and to demand (safer to stay at home than to go shopping) will seriously damage growth.

The OECD says a long and severe outbreak could halve its forecast global growth rate for 2020 to 1.5 per cent. Interest rate cuts such as that by the US Federal Reserve will have only a limited countervailing impact. Governments must also be ready to loosen fiscal policies.

Whether slowdown turns to recession will depend on how fast and far the virus spreads during coming months. In countries where it takes hold, the focus of governments will turn quickly from the present containment effort to one of delay and mitigation, in the hope that summer weather in the northern hemisphere will slow it down.

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Scientists are unsure of how effective this strategy will prove and doubtful of producing a vaccine before next winter.

A POLITICAL MINEFIELD

The result is a minefield for politicians. If the Covid-19 epidemic follows the presumed course, there will be some loud explosions. Such emergencies stir strong public emotions. Everyone knows that the first duty of the state is to safeguard the security of its citizens.

Governments cannot be blamed for the virus, but the way they respond to the crisis will never be more closely scrutinised. Perceptions will often count for as much as reality.

Getting it right in such circumstances is not easy. The politicians are flying blind. The worse case scenarios of the epidemiologists are just that; the risk is that they are seen as forecasts.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 is now coming for Italy and Europe

A man wearing a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus walks past the Duomo Ca
A man wearing a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus walks past the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, Italy on Mar 4, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

In 2009, the British government predicted that up to 65,000 UK citizens could be killed by that year’s swine flu pandemic. In the event the official figure was less than 500, though some later estimates suggested it might be a little higher.

The line between intelligent precaution and fuelling a panic is a fine one. The authorities in the Italian region of Lombardy, where coronavirus has taken serious hold, have been accused by the Rome government of excessive testing of potential victims.

In Japan, there is more than a suspicion that political leaders have imposed severe restrictions on tests so as to conceal the extent to which the virus has spread.

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READ: Commentary: Japan shows how not to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak

HONESTY: WHAT PEOPLE APPRECIATE

The politicians’ best weapon is honesty. Past experience says voters are perfectly prepared to live with the hardship and loss caused by what many might call an act of God.

But they also expect political leaders to show grip, competence and candour. It is easy to see why Mr Trump and Mr Johnson may find themselves in trouble.

Coronavirus is blind, however, between elected politicians and autocrats. Not so long ago, President Xi Jinping was being styled as China’s emperor-for-life.

Medical staff members wave to a recovered patient (foreground L) at Leishenshan Hospital
Medical staff members wave to a recovered patient (foreground L) at Leishenshan Hospital, the makeshift hospital for the COVID-19 coronavirus patients, in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Mar 1, 2020. (Photo: STR/AFP)

His power seemed as close as it gets to absolute. The force of the public anger at official attempts to conceal, and then play down, the initial outbreak in Wuhan province told a different story. Mr Xi suddenly looked distinctly fragile. Even Mr Xi needs legitimacy, and legitimacy requires a level of public confidence.

MULTILATERAL ACTION NEEDED

Mr Trump has most to lose. Coronavirus cannot be written off as “fake news”. The president has neither the manner nor the temperament to recast himself as a national leader at a time of emergency.

Competence has never been a strong suit. His strategy to win a second term has been built around the premise of a strong economy. Without the co-ordinated multilateral action he so frequently scorns, a pandemic could see the US and the world tip into recession.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 could redefine Singapore’s place in the global economy

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The world has been deglobalising. This latest disruption of cross-border supply chains may see another turn of the ratchet.

The hope, however, must be that the defeat of coronavirus shows the worth of intelligent and honest government and dispels the populist canard that taking back control requires a fearful retreat behind national frontiers.

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Source: Financial Times/sl

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