Authoritarian governments have long been criticized by the liberal West. The common criticisms range from human rights abuses to the lack of political pluralism, all of which are within reason.
However, it has become most evident that in this time of global pandemic that authoritarian states that have garnered such criticism are now shining examples of competence in time of crisis.
When COVID-19 initially struck China, many had criticized the closure of Hubei Province as draconian and unnecessary, but now Western governments struggling to contain the virus look toward China with a degree of envy.
The allure of authoritarianism begins with such envy.
“How it would be so easy to govern if things could be done at a stroke of a pen,” an envious leader of a democratic nation would think. Such a thought would have surely crossed the mind of the “Leader of the Free World” at least once.
The reality is that authoritarian governments are primed for crisis, the centralization of power and authority enables solutions, for better or worse, to be disseminated quickly.
The initial responses, as exemplified by China, are nothing to be proud of. The censoring of media and silencing of doctors who raised alarm over the virus were executed quickly, but their effectiveness were self-evident.
However, now, as the West becomes the new epicenter of COVID-19, the only cases reported in China have been imported.
China is now offering support to countries battling the virus, a stark change in role since the beginning of the outbreak.
Singapore has gained international attention for how it is handling the pandemic. It has enforced strict measures on those entering the city-state, issuing “stay-home notices” mandating self-isolation for 14 days.
Failure to comply means a fine of up to S$10,000 (US$7,007), six months’ in jail, or both, under the nation’s Infections Diseases Act.
One returning Singaporean who flaunted his stay-home notice had his passport canceled by the government, and his breach is being handled by the Singaporean Ministry of Health.
From the onset of the outbreak, Singapore’s government has published information of local cases, including the age, travel history and infection cluster.
This has been useful for the government and the public. For the government it enables greater accuracy and efficiency in contact tracing, while the public is able to know which clusters to avoid, along with the luxury of government transparency.
However, this comes at the expense of the patient’s privacy, in the name of the greater good. Could such a policy be implemented in the US?
Western countries failed to initially deal with the onset of domestic cases. Spring breakers were still rushing to the beaches of Florida, with the illusion that youth granted immunity to the virus.
The mentality that individual liberty trumped government authority was once the prize and pride of the West, but is now the very cause of its lack of efficacy.
People of the West now look to the authoritarian states wishing that their own governments had the will and authority for better crisis management. As much as we find authoritarian governments reprehensible in our own ways, it is indisputable that tough measures in times like these are necessary and effective.
What was displayed in some Western countries was the assertion, not of individual freedom, but a shameless display of irrationality. The belief that “it will not come here” or that COVID-19 is a “Chinese virus” are products of an irrational mind.
After the final patient recovers and COVID-19 becomes an indelible mark in the history of humanity, people will begin to ask for answers. They will blame government incompetence, globalization and the like, but how far will we go to consider our own responsibility?
When the storm is over, we need to exercise greater personal responsibility to avoid another health crisis. It is more than just washing our hands or avoiding leaving the house whether feeling well or unwell — but the personal responsibility of acting rationally when our own governments fail to act.
Individual irrationality has led to tougher government measures, it paves the way for an overbearing government in future.
Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as having said: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
It is not that the individual should not have their safety, it is that they would no longer be safe from government authority the more they trade their liberty.
The question is whether we would be satisfied with this new found security after the storm subsides.
Nigel Li is a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
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