- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2020

It’s not every day that political scientists get a chance to observe a real-world, real-time experiment on how governments around the globe handle the same, all-consuming crisis.

Political science has long been criticized as an academic field divorced from the messy realities of statecraft, but scholars of comparative government say they have been handed a once-in-a-lifetime experiment as nations confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

World leaders from autocracies to democracies are undergoing a test using hard and soft data to measure how their forms of governance are rising to a challenge that knows no borders.

Among the variables: How does Germany’s federal system rate against those in the U.S. and Canada? Do systems that give presidents strong executive power fare better or worse than those run by prime ministers and multiparty coalitions? What advantages and disadvantages do one-party states such as China and Vietnam have compared with liberal democracies? How do nationalism, trust in government and popular attitudes about collective welfare and individual rights affect the fight against a hidden threat that does not discriminate?

And why are neighboring states facing the same infection curves — Italy and Germany, the U.S. and Mexico, Sweden and Norway — pursuing different strategies and finding different results?

“Essentially, what we’re seeing right now is the divergence between what political systems can do and what the economic system is allowed to do,” said Christian Davenport, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.

A list of the world’s 10 current “safest countries,” compiled by the London-based Deep Knowledge Group, includes classic European-style parliamentary democracies (Israel, Australia and New Zealand), densely populated city-states (Singapore and Hong Kong) and a totalitarian one-party government (China).

The novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, has spread to virtually every country. In a matter of weeks, authoritarian regimes and democratic governments scrambled to stop the spread of the virus, which now has infected more than 2 million people globally. Political scientists are analyzing the factors that contribute to an effective nationwide response and are compiling data on whether one regime style is outperforming the rest.

Sofia Fenner, an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College, examined responses to the highly contagious COVID-19 disease. Ms. Fenner theorized that four main factors contribute to effective response: regime type, leadership response, state capacity, and “societal buy-in,” notably voluntary social distancing.

From these four factors, she determined possible outcomes and categorized nations based on their responses to the pandemic.

Nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, characterized as democracies with high state capacity, were credited with “effective mitigation response.” The United States’ federal and state governments were faulted for a “belated, botched mitigation response” because of delays from leadership, low state capacity, and popular skepticism and disagreements about the scope of the crisis.

China, whose state-controlled media have been actively spinning the handling of the crisis as an advertisement for its Communist Party-controlled system, was labeled as having a “belated but massive mitigation response” because of a delayed leadership response, high state capacity and strong state authoritarianism that has the power to force citizens and businesses to shut down.

First responders

Ms. Fenner said it is not necessarily the regime type, but rather the ability to mobilize early and quickly, that appear to make a significant difference.

“We do not yet know how much proactive leadership can do with a weak state, but the Italian example shows a delayed response can put even a decently capable state in serious trouble,” she wrote in a post for politics blog Duck of Minerva. “Italy’s system of universal health coverage and low-cost access may have helped, but it did not save the country from becoming the disease’s second epicenter.”

The University of Michigan’s Mr. Davenport said it is not surprising that Norway and Germany are faring relatively well. He cited a high level of trust in the states’ capacity and their availability to monitor and communicate with the citizenry.

The United States has to navigate with a tricky dynamic between the powers of the federal government and the states and localities. Although President Trump and his coronavirus response team have held press briefings nearly every day to deliver information about the crisis, the responsibility for on-the-ground policies rests largely with state governors and local officials.

The U.S. response, political scientists say, has been complicated by clashing agendas of the White House and Congress, the state governments, and even local officials in states that have not imposed broad containment measures.

“There is a mode of centralization that kicks in during crisis, natural or otherwise, that facilitates some sort of organizational components — compiling information, distributing information,” Mr. Davenport said.

The American system is “highly decentralized in certain respects,” he said. “We do see a centralization of information and coercive capacity that’s kicking in as curfews are stepping up, but we have central/decentralization dynamic, which is really kind of playing out in awkward ways.”

Mr. Davenport said the pandemic is also shining a spotlight on how a country’s economic system and inequality play major roles in how its political leaders act.

“I think that gap is the thing that’s really going to be most interesting because of the societies that are most unequal in terms of economic system,” he said. “If the political system is not stepped up to address those deficiencies, then the populations are just left vulnerable.”

Phoebe Tang, a comparative government professor at New Jersey’s Drew University, said a final verdict on which systems worked best may take a while. Governments have adopted a wide range of policies ranging from the “most lenient to the most draconian,” and “the most successful are not necessarily the most stringent.”

In a videoconference organized by the school, she noted that countries are still in various stages of outbreaks. China and South Korea apparently are past the peak, and the U.S. and others are still trying to reach the back end of the curve.

Those that appear to be star performers in April 2020 may not shine so brightly when the final numbers come in a year or five years from now.

“It’s hard right now to say who is ‘successful …,’” Ms. Tang said. “The time factor does play an important role here.”

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