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The question of what is possible and acceptable to do in a liberal democracy in a rampant epidemic situation

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When China confined Wuhan and other areas of the country to cut the epidemic, using its full force of coercion, many in liberal democracies, including its rulers, thought that something like this could never be done in their countries. It was widely held that only a dictatorial regime could apply such an enormously restrictive and coercive framework of measures. 

The exponential spread of the coronavirus, first through Italy, then through most European democracies, the United States, and others, forced a change of heart. Finally, almost all resorted to some form of confinement. With different modalities and different degree of coercion, but following the Wuhan model. And in line, of course, with the secular tradition of isolating the infected and part or all of the population.

The question of what is possible and acceptable to do in a liberal democracy in a rampant epidemic situation, and what can be done, instead, in an authoritarian regime or with authoritarian overtones, opens the door to the discussion about effectiveness: who are they more effective in fighting the pandemic? Liberal democracies, which try to do so without overly restricting individual rights, or dictatorships and dictatorships, where rights do not exist or matter little and expeditious measures are taken without being held accountable to anyone?

The late, partial or disorderly responses of many democracies to the push of the virus may lean towards answering the question in favour of the latter. Not limited by rights, opposition, parliaments, free press and public opinion, dictatorships seem to be winning the contest of efficiency. But that is only if we tell half the story. And only half of this story. Only if we forget that the spread of the virus by so many countries in the world was caused, at the decisive initial moment, in the opacity of China.

True. This time, the Communist Party dictatorship did not take as long to react and recognize the infection as in 2002, when the coronavirus responsible for SARS appeared. Then, the official silence was absolute between November and February. But the delay, now, was enough for hundreds of thousands of people, in a few weeks, to sow the seed for the rest of China and other countries. There is no need for a will to conceal a budding epidemic. 

Although this will does not exist, the very institutional structure of a dictatorship is an impediment to the flow of information and an obstacle to acting on time. And we still have to have the habit of silencing and punishing those who disclose information not officially sanctioned – the doctor who sounds the alarm. Authoritarian regimes may seem more effective in controlling an epidemic. But they are only, if they are, after being totally ineffective.

The ineffectiveness of the Chinese dictatorship in the decisive initial moments will not be known or evaluated. No one but the dictatorship itself can do it. China will veto at WHO an investigation into the origin of the pandemic that Australia plans to order. This will close the opacity circle. And it will keep the cycle of mistrust open.

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