Does Coronavirus Discredit Liberal Institutions?

Does Coronavirus Discredit Liberal Institutions?

The pandemic is bringing differences between countries with state capacity and those without into stark relief.

As Walter Ricciardi, an adviser to the Italian Health Ministry, told The New York Times, regional differences have made it difficult to charge forward with a unified, collective response to the pandemic. Mixed messages from different levels of authority in the country have led to a disorganized response and an infection rate out of control. Now, local mayors are begging the national government to be more aggressive in its response. But with an already strained system, there are only so many ventilators and government troops to go around.

Division of powers is a key element of many modern states, especially in the West, but in the case of Italy, regional autonomy is just a political recognition of an underlying reality of difference that has existed since the fall of the Roman Empire and has continued to exist in Italy even throughout different regime-types and governments. The pandemic is bringing those differences into stark relief.

But is that really the real answer? All of the answers so far have a degree of plausibility to them, including the hypothesis that Italy has been hit hard first and foremost because Lombardy is a “magnet” for Chinese tourists. In other words, it’s far more complicated than liberal democracy vs. authoritarianism, and to arrive at the real answer, we’ll have to do careful, case-by-case analysis of each country and what worked, what didn’t, and why. Acknowledging this more complex reality is the first step to revitalizing our institutions and planning for the future without falling prey to simplistic narratives about the glories of other global powers and their political systems. The coronavirus event will define the next decade of Western politics. We had better get started now.

Jonah Bennett is a writer, researcher, and co-founder of Palladium Magazine. He can be reached at his personal site or Twitter @BennettJonah.