Covid political stress testing

May 14, 2021

In July, 2020, Armend Bekaj, writing on the News Website of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), in Sweden, argued that those who are democracy practitioners and promoters are regrettably being drawn into a misguided debate about “which political system is better at tackling the [Covid] pandemic, democracies or autocracies”.  He noted the already countless articles on this topic.

This democracy-supportive preference not to talk in this way about how differently structured political systems have coped with the Covid pandemic is understandable.  The primary figures are the problem.

The world’s most successful One Party State, China, had a recorded Covid caseload, in early May, 2021, of less than 100,000 and deaths of less than 5,000 in a population of 1.4 billion.  Meanwhile, the US, immensely wealthy, the most powerful democracy by far and still the world’s only superpower, had a caseload of just on 33 million, with around 600,000 deaths in a population of 333 million.

The US Covid death rate is about 1,800 per million.  The Chinese Covid death rate is less than 4 per million.  If China had a death rate equivalent to the US, it would, by now, have seen some 2.5 million fatalities combined with 140 million infections.

According to these figures, China has, today, saved almost 2.5 million lives using its particular approach to COVID prevention – an awkwardly huge protection of the most basic human right, the right to life, compared to the US.

Now, tragically, the world’s largest democracy, India, is caught within a terrible pandemic firestorm, with cases mounting at close to 3 million per week and deaths running at over 25,000 per week according to official figures.  The rate of Covid case increase is so rapid that it is giving rise to a number of new Covid variants against which current vaccines may not offer substantial protection.  This is horrendous for India – but it is also deeply concerning for the entire world, especially the rich world where vaccination is most advanced.

The Chinese approach was, amongst other things, designed to avoid the creation of this sort of significant, variant-incubation risk.  As it happens, Dr Anthony Fauci, now chief medical advisor to President Biden in the US, recently advised India to learn from China, by building temporary hospitals on a very large scale and by instituting major lock-downs.

These raw figures are not decisive, of course.  Those firmly defending democracy not unreasonably point to the wide range of factors which have shaped these outcomes.  The figures do, however, raise acute prima facie questions about what works best – and does not – when it comes to hands-on, mass-pandemic controls and fundamental patient care.

There is, though, another more specific dimension within this broad debate, which has not been widely discussed.  Consider the list of the four jurisdictions worldwide with the worst Covid outcomes in terms of total deaths so far.  They are, in order: America, Brazil, India, and Mexico.  The first three also have the highest case-loads, globally.

All four are democracies but they have another political structure factor in common: each country uses a federal system of government that constitutionally divides power between a central government and separated, regional governments.  As the Covid pandemic has unfolded, it is clear that the level of squabbling (and blame shifting) between the relevant levels of government has intensified.  Similar problems have occurred within unitary states, of course, but there, the powers allowing health-costly stand-offs are measurably less entrenched.

Within these four Federal States there is accumulating evidence that the division of political powers has worked more against than in favour of finding solutions during the Covid crisis.  These are large or very large countries of course.  But (unitary) China is bigger still than any of them – so size alone is not the primary explanation for these grim Covid figures.

Other Federal States have fared better.

Federal Germany has managed to keep its Covid death rate at around 1,000 deaths per million while the Covid death rate in Federal Canada is about 650 deaths per million.  Federal Australia has done far better still at 36 deaths per million (approximately).

Both Australia and New Zealand (only 5.3 deaths per million) secured maximum Covid prevention benefits by taking advantage of their geographic location.  They are comparatively, remotely located and they have zero land borders with any other country.  In each case, a fortress-style insularity, shutting down incoming visitors massively, has been applied.

But Australia still had to address the Covid onset having a Federal Government and six State and two Territory Governments.  Notwithstanding this fundamental division of governance powers, the central government and all the regional governments rapidly agreed to create a National Cabinet of the Federal Prime Minister and all State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, in March, 2020, to coordinate Australia’s response to the pandemic.

The initial foundations for this readiness to act together were laid down more than one hundred years ago in the Engineers case.  That was when the High Court of Australia, in 1920, began what turned out to be an extended project to amplify the central authority of the Federal Government in Canberra, at the expense of the States, by using its constitutional interpretation powers.

There have been many High Court interpretations since 1920 that have further centralized power in Canberra.  Moreover, for some decades, Canberra and the States have regularly cooperated to create uniform or standardized financial and regulatory systems.

Today, to be frank, the Australian Federal System brings to mind the reported reply of China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, when he was asked what he thought of the large Mausoleum built to house the body Mao Zedong.  It was erected in Tiananmen Square in 1977, shortly after Mao’s death.  Deng apparently responded that: If you did not have it you would never build it – but once you have it, you can never get rid of it. 

In any event, Australia was well positioned, as a product of its long and particular federal experience, to recognize: the extraordinary gravity of the Covid threat; and the need to act swiftly to create A dominant central-collective response regime.

Federalism was an intrinsic political requirement to create the States discussed above and it remains a central sustaining principle of their existence.  This applies to Australia, within its own circumstances, and even more so to India, America, Brazil and Mexico.  I make no argument for the dismantling of these federal arrangements.

However, the pandemic has highlighted that business-as-usual within a number of these Federal States has amplified the probability of bad outcomes.  We know, based on history that this pandemic is a once-in-a-century medical crisis – though this frequency may increase.

The lesson to be learned from the Australian operational experience is that, within certain federal systems, exceptionally ravaging events like this must be far more definitively recognized, as such, so that an extraordinary, centralized-cooperative crisis control regime can swiftly be put in place.

The time to begin planning and institutionalizing this superior level of crisis responsiveness is now.  I will not hold my breath waiting for this process to gather conspicuous momentum.

In closing, it is worth noting that New Zealand may have shown, once again, that it is blessed with a certain foresight.  Few today remember that New Zealand once operated under a Federal System.  The colony was divided into six Provinces in 1853 in accordance the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 enacted at Westminster.

In 1857, certain new Provinces were established.  In 1876 the Provinces were abolished and the Federal System came to an end.  Later, in 1950, New Zealand’s Upper House was abolished, creating the unicameral Parliament, within a Unitary State, that it retains to this day.

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