When China hastily announced on January 23 strict travel restrictions for Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, it gave its residents only eight hours to react. People had little time to buy food, medicine, or essentials. Access in to and out of the city was sealed, public transportation was shut down, and private vehicles banned. Residents were soon after confined to their homes, and the People’s Armed Police marched in to enforce the lockdown.
The international community began to question the Chinese government’s disregard for civil liberties and human rights. Some asked: could such draconian lockdowns work in democratic settings? Fears abound of such measures eventually becoming an excuse for authoritarianism.
But these concerns should not get in the way of allowing our leaders to do what may be necessary when the situation calls for it. And effective responses can be taken without abandoning democratic principles.
What Do Governments Do, Anyway?
Governments do many things. First and foremost is collective action: resolving conflict of interests and making decisions on behalf of citizens. This process is usually consultative, to the extent that citizen opinion matters.
The pandemic brings to light another crucial function of government that is often ignored: crisis management.
Crisis management might seem to be at odds with collective action. Instead of eliciting citizen preferences, governments rely on experts. Citizens implicitly give up their rights to express dissatisfaction so governments can respond quickly to rare and overwhelming events.
It is this second role of government that is creating discomfort, as we deal with increased restrictions and their enforcement, and debate the role of increased surveillance.
But, these two roles can work together, if governments can flexibly adapt to different circumstances.
And to be flexible, governments need to lay the groundwork before crisis strikes.
To respond effectively to a crisis, governments need the trust of their people.
In the United States, trust in the government has been falling, and Americans generally find President Donald Trump untrustworthy insofar as information about the pandemic is concerned. This partly explains why many Americans violated social distancing rules early in the pandemic.
In Singapore, however, trust in the government is consistently high, and so is compliance with pandemic restrictions. But, where does that trust come from?
One reason is that the Singapore government has been preparing for a crisis like this one since the 2002-3 SARS outbreak.
Another is that the government is transparent in its communication about the outbreak.
In short, the Singapore government has earned the trust of their citizens. Preparedness and transparency promotes a culture of trust.
Another essential aspect of crisis management is legislative control.
Responding to the pandemic, Singapore has handed out cash worth 160 billion Singapore dollars (approximately $112 billion) to its residents in three successive budgets. These payments amounted to 32 percent of the country’s GDP. The sheer amount of political control that is required for a decision as massive as this is perhaps quite rare, and Singapore’s one‐ruling‐party system (since 1959) obviously helps. But this does not mean that governments elsewhere cannot do the same.
The Australian government, for instance, announced a 130 billion Australian dollar (approximately $85 billion) wage subsidy — the single largest piece of public spending in Australian history ‐- within days of suspending non‐essential services and shutting down public spaces. The so‐called Job Keeper Payment is worth 7 percent of the country’s GDP. The mammoth legislation was passed in just one sitting day, in a rare display of bipartisanship.
To realize legislative control when crisis hits, the foundations must be laid prior, for example, by promoting a culture of non‐partisanship, or by cutting the red tape for unlocking exceptional powers.
Media and Communication
Timely diffusion of accurate information is key to managing a crisis too, especially in the age of social media where fake news and rumors are rampant. So countries have to be able to control the media to an extent.
This does not have to be excessive, as in China, where citizens might sometimes be imprisoned for expressing dissent online. A balance can be struck between free media and state control.
Governments might, for example, override all mainstream forms of airtime to broadcast regular press conferences that provide consistent information.
In Australia, a team of widely respected experts, led by the Chief Medical Officer, is put in charge of sending out a unified message to the public via regular press releases.
The Taiwanese take this up a notch. Its Central Epidemic Command Centre, chaired by its Health Minister and flanked by medical experts, conducts press conferences that are aired daily. All its mainstream television channels regularly publicize minute‐long personal hygiene and hand washing videos.
Increased surveillance may help a country manage a crisis, and emerge from it sooner, albeit at the cost of citizen privacy.
South Korea, for instance, makes massive use of contact tracing technology to curtail the pandemic. Infected patients are tracked via their credit card transactions and smartphone usage, and their whereabouts are published online daily. Visitors to the country must report their symptoms daily via a smartphone app. By trading away the privacy of individuals, they have been able to avoid a nationwide lockdown and travel restrictions.
So, how much privacy are we prepared to give up? And at what point do we give it up? Countries will ultimately need to determine a privacy “bliss point’’ and subsequently assign appropriate powers to their leaders. But we must be careful not to allow government data tracking to become a permanent fixture.
Adaptability Is Key
Adaptable political institutions may not suit palates everywhere, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has exposed the dangers of inadaptability.
Crisis management requires not only effective policies, but appropriately adaptable governments to deliver them. And we must lay the groundwork now so that governments can swiftly enter and exit from crisis management mode. We should expect no less from our leaders.
Eik Swee is a researcher at the University of Melbourne.