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April 13, 2020, 5:08 p.m. EDT

Why the coronavirus will harden our political views, not change them

The pandemic is turning all countries into exaggerated versions of their previous selves

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By Dani Rodrik


AFP via Getty Images
President Donald Trump holds up a document claiming that the U.S. is the country that is most prepared to deal with the pandemic during a press conference in late February.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. ( Project Syndicate ) — Crises come in two variants: those for which we could not have prepared, because no one had anticipated them, and those for which we should have been prepared, because they were in fact expected.

COVID-19 is in the latter category, no matter what President Donald Trump says to avoid responsibility for the unfolding catastrophe. Even though the coronavirus itself is new and the timing of the current outbreak could not have been predicted, it was well recognized by experts that a pandemic of this type was likely.

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SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, and other outbreaks had provided ample warning. Fifteen years ago, the World Health Organization revised and upgraded the global framework for responding to outbreaks, trying to fix perceived shortcomings in the global response experienced during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

No one should expect the pandemic to alter — much less reverse — tendencies that were evident before the crisis. Neoliberalism will continue its slow death, populist autocrats will become even more authoritarian, and the left will continue to struggle to devise a program that appeals to a majority of voters.

In 2016, the World Bank launched a Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility to provide assistance to low-income countries in the face of cross-border health crises. Most glaringly, just a few months before COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China, a U.S. government report cautioned the Trump administration about the likelihood of a flu pandemic on the scale of the influenza epidemic a hundred years ago, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Disastrous response

Just like climate change, COVID-19 was a crisis waiting to happen. The response in the United States has been particularly disastrous. Trump downplayed the severity of the crisis for weeks. By the time infections and hospitalizations began to soar, the country found itself severely short of test kits, masks, ventilators, and other medical supplies.

The U.S. did not request test kits made available by the WHO, and failed to produce reliable tests early on. Trump declined to use his authority to requisition medical supplies from private producers, forcing hospitals and state authorities to scramble and compete against one another to secure supplies.

Delays in testing and lockdowns have been costly in Europe as well, with Italy, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom paying a high price. Some countries in East Asia have responded a lot better. South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong appear to have controlled the spread of the disease through a combination of testing, tracing, and strict quarantine policies.

Interesting contrasts have emerged within countries as well.

In northern Italy, Veneto has done much better than nearby Lombardy , largely owing to more comprehensive testing and earlier imposition of travel restrictions. In the U.S., the neighboring states of Kentucky and Tennessee reported their first cases of COVID-19 within a day of each other. By the end of March, Kentucky had only a quarter of the number of cases as Tennessee, because the state acted much more quickly to declare a state of emergency and close down public accommodations.

Just as expected

For the most part, though, the crisis has played out in ways that could have been anticipated from the prevailing nature of governance in different countries.

Trump’s incompetent, bumbling, self-aggrandizing approach to managing the crisis could not have been a surprise, as lethal as it has been. Likewise, Brazil’s equally vain and mercurial president, Jair Bolsonaro, has, true to form, continued to downplay the risks.

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