Strengthening international systems, lesson learned from coronavirus

Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

After we beat the novel coronavirus, we will have to rebuild international systems and strengthen democracies. The prevailing view that dictatorships deal better than democracies with international crises such as pandemics or natural disasters is fundamentally flawed.

True, autocratic regimes do have more tools to track their citizenry, to jail and to punish them. Democracies don’t do as well in this regard. Many in Israel and elsewhere look these days to China and emphasize that only in a dictatorship can dramatic and even cruel measures be implemented to curb the epidemic: building hospitals within 10 days, placing millions of people under tight lockdown and harshly punishing infractions.

However, many also tend to forget that autocratic regimes are based on fear and obedience and not on respect and equality. These regimes often seek to manipulate information over transparency and honest reporting. This is what led us to the initial problem.

Playing with information

The coronavirus probably began spreading in China in November, and the resulting initial fatalities occurred in December. Did information about these developments in the provinces reach the top echelons in time, or did the local officialdom try to conceal them?

Once rumors of the mysterious disease began circulating, did the Chinese regime properly notify and update the World Health Organization (WHO)? Why did China continue with its lunar New Year celebrations even as the disease was already spreading throughout Hubei province, as were video clips about the mysterious virus that was dealing a cruel blow to the elderly and vulnerable?

This was exactly how the Soviet regime responded after the blast at reactor number 5 in the town of Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. There, too, authorities initially tried to conceal the disaster from the world and from their own citizens. On May 1, thousands marched in the traditional international proletarian holiday parade, with many children in attendance. It was only several days later, when the extent of the disaster could no longer be hidden, that authorities began evacuating area residents.

In Iran, too, authorities decided to carry on with planned parliamentary elections on February 21 even when they already knew about the spreading epidemic. In fact, they concealed real information from their citizens. Iranian authorities claimed the US was deliberately spreading misinformation about the epidemic in order to reduce election turnout. The elections were held, Friday prayer services continued as usual and so did the pilgrimages to the holy city of Qum. By that time it was too late, and Iran became a focal point of the outbreak in the region.

Trust in the system is a prerequisite

Extreme situations of pandemics, natural disasters or man-made disasters require a free flow of information, trust in the institutions of government and, of course, well-performing systems. If citizens know the regime is not lying to them and is doing everything possible to deal with the situation, they will follow instructions and remain calm even under extreme circumstances.

Nonetheless, democracies must deal with the question of discipline – maintaining quarantines, adhering to instructions by government agencies, etc. In Italy, disregard of the instructions issued by health authorities, albeit with tragic delay, has resulted in disaster and the collapse of the health system.

However, even under such circumstances, transparency is preferable, with citizens knowing that the government is not lying to them and that data about the spread of the disease is real and reflects the situation on the ground. The WHO does not say so officially and publicly, but its many experts have expressed suspicion regarding the data provided by a number of non-democratic states about the coronavirus spread. One must obviously differentiate between countries that do not know how to detect the illness or deal with it from those that knowingly lie about it.

In times of disease, we all are somewhat socialists

In these frenzied times, the voice of neo-liberals calling for reduced government involvement and cuts in social service spending, including health services, is barely heard. Suddenly, while the world is dealing with a clear and present danger from an epidemic that inflicts painful death, everyone fully understands why we need a robust and well-funded public health system.

When 1,000 doctors are forced into quarantine and there is no one to replace them because of the chronic shortage of doctors and nurses, when medical teams lack the equipment they need and when one hears about a shortage of respirators in Italy, all the arguments about a necessary cut in government spending no longer sound very relevant.

US President Donald Trump, who shut down the pandemic preparedness office at the National Security Council because this boring issue appeared extraneous and esoteric, is now forced to tackle a crisis he never imagined in his worst nightmares. Israel’s health system is endowed with abundant knowledge and excellent experts, but the crisis has caught it starved of funding and other resources.

Will politicians take this message to heart when they prepare the next state budget? Hopefully, the confrontation with the coronavirus will make changed priorities.

We are all in it together

Another issue that cannot be ignored these days is the essential need for strong, functioning international organizations, multilateral organizations such as the WHO, the UN and other institutions weakened by cynical, irresponsible world leaders in recent years.
Rather than contributing to the necessary reform of these institutions, populists starved them for budgets, and undermined their prestige and capabilities. However, when a global crisis breaks out, the world must have a central body able to synchronize, transfer and cross-reference information, issue recommendations and act to the necessary extent.

Many countries rejected the recommendations of the WHO on Covid-19 and are in no hurry to adopt them these days either, and the world has no ability to impose global policy on them. It is impossible to know how long this crisis will last, but it is abundantly clear that the world, and each and every state, will have to learn the specific and collective lessons of this pandemic, otherwise, we will experience another and far more painful crash within a decade.

The writer is director of the program on Israel-Middle East relations at the Mitvim Institute. She is a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a former MK and was also a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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