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Strong states – yes, authoritarian states – save lives

IF there’s anything the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has demonstrated, incontrovertibly, I think, it is that at the end of the day, people and even our entire human species have to rely on strong — yes, even authoritarian states — for their survival.

Argue as much as you can over some details — for example, that Italy has a huge over-70 population, which made its citizens more vulnerable to the disease — the data stares us in the face:

It is nations with strong, authoritarian states — mainly the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation — that have beaten back this pandemic, which some religious fanatics even see as ushering the biblical end of days. Nearly overwhelmed in February with 77,016 cases, China now has just 3,947. Russia has only 626 case.

I would even include in that list Asian nations that have had a long history of authoritarianism — Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and, yes, even Japan — which appear to have the pandemic under control within their territories, with cases only by the hundreds, in contrast to the democracies with their tens of thousands.

We may not have an authoritarian state, contrary to what the Reds and Yellows are claiming, but we do have a strong leader.

How else could the Congress have passed a law in a few days’ time that allow President Rodrigo Duterte to do things our United States-patterned, ultra-democratic system would have prevented him from doing, or at least slowed him down? How else could he have been so bold as to ban travel in and out of the metropolis, still the country’s economic and political capital?

In contrast to these authoritarian states, several nations that have been steeped in the notion of individual choice as the highest human value — that is, democracies — have had their Covid-19 cases, and deaths from it, unbelievably soar in a matter of weeks: the US now (March 26) has 66,995 cases from just 35 cases 30 days ago; Italy, 57,521 from 79 ; Spain, 28,570 from two; France, 20,002 from 12; and the United Kingdom, 8,929 from just nine.

World Health Organization experts who studied how China beat back Covid-19 had emphasized one particular lesson: the government should act fast and decisively. But how can democracies really do that, burdened with “due processes” and even parliamentary requirements?

When Wuhan started to be deluged with cases, the Chinese central government took over the city government. Can that be done in a democratic system like ours or in the US, where for instance the New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo is squabbling with US President Donald Trump, blaming him for not delivering the respirators New York needed when the Federal Emergency Management Agency had boasted it had 2,000 in its warehouse?

Can the US, or even our government, simply order the appropriate factories to operate 24/7 to produce as much as they can of the necessary protective masks, the personal protective equipment and even ventilators? We may have to sing paeans to authoritarianism if our Covid-19 situation goes out of control. Ordered by the central government, Chinese factories have produced so much of these items that they have now been giving these out to democracies severely hit by the pandemic.

Last month, anti-China liberals expressed horror as they posted video clips of Wuhan scenes such as the one showing the gates to a residence with uncooperative virus-infected people being welded shut and of another a family, which we presume were sick with Covid-19, being dragged out of their apartments. That was roughly when cases here totaled about 40.

Now that it’s past 500, many netizens of this political color are demanding that Sen. Aquilino Pimentel 3rd — who defied quarantine to go to the delivery room of a hospital — be similarly treated.

Video clips in social media of Britons partying in a pub or of young Americans in a Florida beach defying their governments’ “stay at home” pleas illustrate vividly the core problem of democracy: individual choices do not necessarily lead to collective good.

One of the key responses to curb the Covid-19 pandemic is to deny individuals many of their rights under a democratic system: to congregate, socialize, travel and even work. But it is the total denial of those rights by a state that can save the collective that is the nation. After all, how can humans exercise their rights, if they’re dead?

Liberals, who mostly belong to the comfortable, never-starved social classes, find it difficult to understand the advantages of authoritarianism because their idea of a nation is where they usually live: in gated villages of people of the same class, where the concerns of the homeowners association (the state) focus on such things as how to maintain the streetlights, repair the roads and ensure security, especially from bad people outside the subdivision.

Nations are far from being gated villages of peers. The best analogy for a nation is to imagine it as a group of people traveling through a jungle, where there is danger all around them that could wipe them out. They don’t have the luxury to vote what their response would be if, say, a pride of lions suddenly emerge from the bushes. They can only rely on the orders of their leader, who would have to be a strong man.

“But we’ve tried Marcos martial law, and it was a catastrophe” is the knee-jerk response one would hear to columns like this one.

Look, I fought martial law two years before and years after it was declared, and it was my job to observe it and report on it as a reporter. The country soared — economically, politically and even culturally (remember the kind of Filipino movies then?) until 1979 — with its average annual gross domestic product in those years at 6 percent.

What ruined that strong state was after those heyday years was, ironically, creeping weakness. It weakened when President Ferdinand Marcos enervated the authoritarian system by setting up the Batasan Pambansa first in 1978, when the communists in alliance with the oligarchs sapped its strength, and finally when the strongman himself weakened because of his debilitating kidney disease that required a transplant.

Marcos’ story was also a retelling of the King Lear tragedy, or maybe more accurately its Japanese version, in the movie “Ran,” where a powerful warlord decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons, who promptly fight among themselves, pushing the kingdom to an early ruin. It’s easy to guess who the counterparts of those three sons were in Marcos’ case.

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