People wait their turn for the coronavirus test in Padova, Italy, on February 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roberto Silvino/NurPhoto

It defies belief, but somehow Beijing has emerged as some kind of success story for battling the Covid-19 outbreak. China is now considered by some, even in democracies, as a shining beacon of how governments ought to react in a time of crisis, a narrative spurred on by sycophants and appeasers, and propaganda from China’s lavishly funded state-run media – what Bill Bishop of Sinocism, a Washington-based China newsletter, recently described as its “we did everything we could, we tried to save the world, we bought you time” propaganda push. 

If you tell a lie enough times it becomes the truth, after all, but if you also ignore the truth enough times then it becomes a lie. As such, this week we saw Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic lambaste European solidarity and claim, “only China can help us in this situation.” Other world leaders now also look to China, an authoritarian example of what big government, repression and terror can achieve. 

Democracies, by comparison, don’t respond well in crises like this. That’s for a very good reason; they don’t have much experience of shutting down borders and confining the movements of their citizens, nor do their bureaucracies sit around all day dreaming up ways of keeping people in their homes. The Communist Party of China (CPC), of course, was able more quickly and effectively to quarantine the entire Hubei province of almost 60 million people; it has been doing the same thing in Xinjiang for years. 

It’s easy to lose track of the number of articles and essays published almost daily on whether democratic or authoritarian political systems are better at dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. Seldom asked, though, is whether democracies should want to be able to respond as efficiently and quickly as authoritarian states to such crises. 

It may sound perverse (and I accept the expected criticism) as the number of deaths now reaches almost 8,000 worldwide, but I for one take some solace in the slow, plodding and often incompetent responses of most democracies to this pandemic. Perversely, indeed, it is actually testament to the democratic spirit of most European countries that they have struggled to adapt to the crisis. 

One ought to be fearful of well-operating states that can quickly and efficiently close borders, cajole citizens into quarantines and restrict movement. Criticism of my home country, the UK, for its slow handling of the crisis are justified, but it ought to be remembered that something like this hasn’t happened since the 1940s. French President Emmanuel Macron might now be judged to have been wrong to allow local elections to continue last week, but he did it for the right reasons; he didn’t want to be seen as a tyrant by opposition parties. 

For one thing, the health-care and political systems of democracies, especially those in Europe, aren’t built for pandemics of this sort. That’s not because of incompetence; it’s because they are designed not to allow viruses like this to spread in the first place. Unlike China, democratic systems are not built to hide and obscure serious information from the public for weeks, and to silence doctors who raise the alarm. 

The CPC, after all, knew in late November (or early December, if one is being generous) that a new virus was brewing in Wuhan and said nothing publicly, either to its own citizens or the rest of the world, for weeks. Some 10,000 Chinese nationals and foreigners living in China flew every day to the US between late November and January 31, when President Donald Trump announced a ban on flights from China. Tens of thousands also flew daily to Europe, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. 

It should also go without saying, but doesn’t, that Beijing now resorts to spouting laughable conspiracy theories that the virus was developed as a weapon to attack China – a message intended to burnish its nationalist credentials – because the CPC knows its own legitimacy is failing as the economy stutters and people are sick and tired that this time they were let down by their own government, not foreigners.

Clearly, not all is well in Beijing when it has sink to such gutter propaganda. Meanwhile, censorial raids on free-thinkers in China are growing, and expect more aggression from Beijing in the South China Sea this year to stir the nationalist sinews, though that might not even be enough.     

But now that strict measures have been imposed across Europe, North America and other democracies, the game has changed. It might sound alarmist, but the international community is at its weakest in recent history, while relations between the US and China are now arguably at their worst in decades. China’s behavior is popular. Democracies are seen as failing their people.  

Once the epidemic has been brought to an end and most of us can sit back and breathe of a post-battle sigh of relief, hoping for a return to normalcy, might governments have other ideas? The taste of extreme power and authority is often insatiable, and major crises tend to alter politics and fracture societies. Scapegoats will have to be found. Economic hardship will last for years. Some economies will fall. 

Borderless movement within Europe’s Schengen zone has now been suspended, and one imagines it has become much easier to put up borders again and restrict movement in the event of another emergency in the future, perhaps less clear-cut a crisis than this pandemic.

If there were to be another migrant crisis in Europe as in 2016 some time, for instance, wouldn’t this be a reason to close borders? That may well be the argument of some European states, like Hungary and Poland, that consider mass immigration a “national security” concern. The European Union has shown itself weak in this crisis, leaving all decisions to nation-states. Won’t this see more nationalist demands post-pandemic? Won’t citizens clamor for stronger leaders and more commanding states?       

The aftermaths of any financial, economic or medical crises are not ideal times for democrats. Post-1929 shows us that most clearly, but so too does what happened after the 2008 financial crisis; Trump and populism, the rise of the far right and far left, are its legacies.

Things are unlikely to return to normal once the Covid-19 pandemic ends, especially if it leads to a global recession. Darker times lie ahead, probably for longer than many of us imagine right now. 

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno

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