Western system gets a radical health check

By Mark Beeson

While the global health crisis may still have a long way to run, a number of things are already clear. First, viruses are quintessentially transnational and don’t care who they infect or what nationality they may be.
Second, China seems to have done an impressive job of halting the spread of the pandemic. Third, other countries have been reluctant to learn some of the possible lessons the Chinese approach offers, not least because they are radically at odds with the values and political practices found in Western liberal democracies.
There is much to admire about the US and the individual liberties that are such a sacrosanct part of its national identity, at least in theory.
In reality, however, life at the bottom of America’s increasingly unequal society can be a grim struggle for survival.
Clearly, America’s social problems are likely to be thrown into even sharper relief by the current pandemic that is rapidly spreading throughout the country.
The simple reality is that many of the so-called working poor in the US have no access to medical care.
They simply cannot afford it in a society where large, highly profitable pharmaceutical companies dominate the health sector. America’s poor can’t afford to take time off work to “self-isolate” either, making it highly likely that the coronavirus will spread even more quickly.
In the absence of effective and timely national leadership from President Donald Trump, who initially described COVID-19 as a “hoax,” state governments are beginning to try and fill the vacuum by enacting radical forms of social control. San Francisco’s response could have been lifted from the Chinese playbook.
But it’s important to remember that Americans are entirely unused to governments of any sort infringing on their jealously guarded and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
But what may be admirable political principles in good times may be obstacles to actions when things go bad.
There has been nothing like the current crisis for 100 years, so any President might struggle to get a grip on such an unprecedented challenge.
But with Trump in charge, the problems of lack of preparedness, years of inadequate health funding, and a blithe disregard for the most disadvantaged members of society, are compounded by a leader who is clearly out of his depth.
The same profound ignorance and closeness to powerful economic interests characterizes Trump’s approach to climate change, too, but the current crisis is even more revealing of his shortcomings.
The consequences of the incoherent, ad hoc, and initially dismissive approach to the crisis are becoming increasingly clear.
A lack of basic medical infrastructure, an inability to test potential carriers of the virus, and an inability to monitor and assist the most disadvantaged members of society – many of whom have underlying health problems – will test more than America’s health system.
The stock market has lurched erratically between fear and greed, adding to the dizzying and destabilizing atmosphere of crisis. In another telling vote of no confidence, ordinary Americans are also panic buying guns, an ominous development in a country which already has extraordinarily high rates of violent crime.
No doubt many – especially American readers – will think this is an unfair and exaggerated portrait of a nation being plunged into an entirely unprecedented crisis.
I hope they are right. But the attempt to impose major restrictions on what Americans can and cannot do is unlikely to be welcome or – equally importantly – easily achieved.
There is the potential for things to get very ugly in the Land of the Free.
The US is not alone in this, of course, as many countries are struggling to deal with a crisis that health experts have long predicted, but which everyone hoped would never arrive.
In my own country, Australia, policymakers are floundering as they contemplate having to impose forms of draconian social control that are usually associated with authoritarian regimes.
While it is true that some Asian democracies such as Singapore and South Korea seem to have done an exemplary job of cracking down early on the problem, such mobilization has occurred in societies that still tolerate high levels of state “intervention.”
It is not clear whether governments in Australia will be able to replicate such policies, especially as politicians are not held in high esteem.
Although China’s response has been impressive, it is too soon to declare victory or feel smug about the problems of the West.
The dangers of a “second wave” of infections and the prospect of the largest economic down since the Great Depression mean that no country is out of danger yet.
International cooperation is a vital part of trying to control this problem – and many others, of course.
If it can be encouraged, there may yet be some positive consequences of an unprecedented threat.
–The Daily Mail-Global Times news exchange item