Commentary: Countries’ Response to the Pandemic Will Shape a Return to Normalcy

As the global pandemic enters its ninth month, people are frustrated and desperate. With families unable to cope with food shortages and falling incomes, nations are experiencing mass unrest. Activists have sparked demonstrations against societal injustices, while others have joined the crusades of QAnon conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. It may get worse before it gets better.

There is widespread anger in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement and the anarchist Antifa fringe have led the largest protests in the U.S. since the 1968 “summer of discontent.” Hyper-connected online communities have awakened to national strife, amplified by simmering discontent with dead-end jobs and student loans.

Europe is no different: Recently, Alternative for Germany and Generation Identity extremists attacked the Reichstag, and miscellaneous far right protesters demonstrated in London.

It’s even worse in the developing world.

In Brazil, populist President Jair Bolsonaro joined anti-lockdown protesters in the capital Brasilia, despite the rising death rates there. Even in the mountainous capital city of Kathmandu, young people recently demanded that Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli takes steps to improve the government response to the pandemic.

Any government reluctant to take the blame for an ineffective pandemic response has clear incentive to blame political opposition — and vice versa. In Belarus, citizens frustrated by the six-term President Alexander Lukashenko’s COVID-skepticism and heavy-handed authoritarian and style of rule came out in the streets after the ruler blatantly falsified his own re-election. Paradoxically, an unprecedented mobilization against his oppressive regime may eventually result in an even heavier Russian hegemony.

The day before the Lukashenko victory announcement, roads in Minsk were blocked by armed police, and tensions were exacerbated by widespread internet outages. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikahnovskaya was held in custody for seven hours by Lukashenko’s secret police. Then, the government forced her to leave the country, while the opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova resisted deportation to Ukraine and is now under arrest.

However, Lukashenko’s inability to handle civic strife starkly contrasts with Kazakhstan’s diffusion of election-driven protests last year and its handling of the pandemic. The wildly different government responses lead to vastly distinct outcomes.

In 2019, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev surprised his country by dismissing the government and resigning after 30 years in power, with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev succeeding him. In June, Tokayev called a snap presidential election, where he purportedly received 70% of the vote. Protests erupted immediately, with thousands arrested or detained.

Kazakhstan was hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 20% of the population losing income due to falling oil prices and lockdowns. Tokayev proactively relaxed protest laws so as to not repeat the post-election riots. Kazakhstan had diffused the tension, promising opposition in the Parliament and proclaiming “a state that listens” to people’s concerns, providing public safety nets and demonstrating a commitment to evidence-based health policy. Brutal suppression of public discontent, such as what is happening in Belarus, would not remove the underlying causes of high political engagement and unrest.

Kazakhstan took an opposite path. On Sept. 1, Tokayev made a state of the nation address to Parliament, recognizing the government’s mismanagement of the crisis and emphasizing national unity:

“The pandemic has become a stress test for all states. The government has learned from its mistakes, and managed to reorganize, literally on the run.”

He outlined evidence-based government reforms and policies aimed to bolster economic and social recovery, promising more openness and market-driven economic solutions.

COVID and Beyond: The Three Futures

Therein lies the rub: The mismanagement of the pandemic has provided ammunition to politicians and activists eager for changes to the status quo. A government willing to hear public grievances and respond competently with evidence-driven strategies can minimize anti-government mobilization and shorten the return to relative normalcy.

[MORE: Countries Seen to Have Well-Developed Public Health Care Systems]

As Francis Fukuyama wrote in Foreign Affairs, it is not even a matter of regime type:

“Some democracies have performed well, but others have not, and the same is true for autocracies. The factors responsible for successful pandemic responses have been state capacity, social trust, and leadership. Countries with all three — a competent state apparatus, a government that citizens trust and listen to, and effective leaders — have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered. Countries with dysfunctional states, polarized societies, or poor leadership have done badly, leaving their citizens and economies exposed and vulnerable.”

Three potential scenarios emerge from the unrest triggered by the pandemic: a baseline, a positive and a negative one. In the baseline, the status quo is largely maintained by short-term concessions depriving the protest movements of momentum.

In the reformist scenario, opposition to ineffectual policies results in a more competent leadership by a responsive and popular government. With minimal damage to public infrastructure or international standing, a country can come out of a crisis preventing the loss of life and achieving greater democratization.

A negative outcome entails a draconian state response intended to disrupt popular protest without addressing grievances — or yielding power. A crackdown preserves the oppression, or there may be a successful toppling of government resulting in anarchy. Worse, the country may be subjugated by adjacent and dictatorial rulers.

Sustained unrest may frighten away investors and send refugees fleeing, or the nation may violently dissolve along regional, ethnic or religious lines. Governments that deny or ignore the virus, apply lockdowns oppressively and incoherently, or fail to shield their people and sabotage long-term economic prospects, may pay a heavy price at home and abroad.

History will judge them harshly.

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