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Will the Coronavirus Be the Death of Authoritarian Regimes?

While authoritarians try to build nationalist walls, infectious diseases don’t respect boundaries and need transnational solutions argues CJ Werleman.

A firefighter disinfects the street in Rasht, Iran on 29 February 2020
Will the Coronavirus Be the Death of Authoritarian Regimes?

While authoritarians try to build nationalist walls, infectious diseases don’t respect boundaries and need transnational solutions argues CJ Werleman.

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The Example of Haiti

When an American resident of Haiti landed at New York City’s JFK Airport in October 1983, a border patrol officer asked him where he had flown from. When he replied “Haiti” the officer told him to “open your passport. I’m not touching it”.

The above excerpt is from a New York Times article published on 29 November 1983 titled ‘For Haiti’s Tourism, the Stigma is Fatal‘.

When the AIDS epidemic struck in the early 1980s, US health authorities linked the immune deficiency syndrome with two groups: homosexual males and the Caribbean nation of Haiti. This stigmatisation would prove deadly for the government of Jean Claude Duvalier, a brutal dictator who succeeded his father and ruled over the country with bloody ruthlessness. It ultimately brought an end to his authoritarian regime.

As a result of the AIDS epidemic, the number of American tourists to Haiti fell from 70,000 in the winter of 1981-82 to a mere 10,000 in the winter of 1982-83.

“In a precarious economy where tourism was the second largest source of foreign income and supported some 25,000 direct and indirect jobs, this setback has brought widespread hardship and despair,” observed the New York Times in 1983. “Hotels stand empty and maids, waiters, guides and handicraft vendors have been laid off. Hoteliers, local officials and foreign diplomats complain that the whole country has been stigmatised by AIDS.”

The collapse in the tourism sector led to a collapse in Haiti’s overall economy and produced a popular revolt against Duvalier in 1985, causing the dictator to flee for France aboard a US Air Force chartered flight in the early hours of 7 February 1986. 

“There he rejoined an expatriated fortune estimated at $400 million to $600 million – equivalent to about twice Haiti’s annual budget – and left behind the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth,” according to an article published in the New York Times on 21 June 1987.

His departure would end authoritarian rule and give birth to democracy, inspiring Haitians to chant “Haiti liberee” in the streets.

Guns, Germs and Dictators

In the 1977 book Plagues and People, William McNeill reveals the extraordinary impact infectious disease epidemics have had in changing the trajectory of history. #

“The history of disease is the history of humankind,” he states while providing examples of how the human-to-human transmission of life-threatening viruses have destroyed or radically altered the structure of states, including the respective Athenian, Roman, Mongol, Aztec and Inca empires.

“For on the night when the Aztecs drove Cortez and his men out of Mexico City, killing many of them, an epidemic of smallpox was raging in the city,” McNeill cites as one example of disease changing the course of history in favour of the Spanish in the 16th Century. “The man who had organised the assault on the Spaniards was among those who died on that noche trista, as the Spaniards later called it. The paralysing effect of a lethal epidemic goes far to explain why the Aztecs did not pursue the defeated and demoralised Spaniards, giving them time and opportunity to rest and regroup, gather Indian allies and set siege to the city, and so achieve their eventual victory.”

If the Coronavirus holds any potential to benefit humankind, as callous as this may sound, then it is the way in which it is now threatening the legitimacy of brutal authoritarian regimes and halting what, for a number of democracies, had appeared to be an irreversible slide towards becoming the kind of totalitarian states seen in the previous century.

In China, the devastating impact of the Coronavirus has succeeded where the Trump administration’s self-defeating and nonsensical trade-tariff war failed in slamming the brakes on the emerging Asian superpower’s ability to churn out high-single digit GDP growth, year after year. The resulting economic slowdown has threatened the legitimacy of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, with Chinese business leaders openly questioning the truthfulness and effectiveness of their Government.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Iran as a result of the regime in Tehran initially downplaying the outbreak, only to be embarrassed later when it was revealed that more than 200 Iranians have died and that as many as 15,000 may have already contracted the virus.

The spread of the virus has also caused political damage to the re-election prospects of Donald Trump, who has not only downplayed the spread and affects of the Coronavirus, but also called it a “hoax” during one of his rallies last week.

The US President’s allies in the right-wing-media have described the virus as a figment of the left’s imagination to bring down the President, even as the public has become privy to the fact that Trump had cut the budget for the agency meant to protect Americans from contagions, the Centre for Disease Control, and sent the first batch of officials to China to greet evacuees without protective clothing before letting them back into the general population without being tested.

Moreover, the Trump administration’s botched response has revealed the critical importance of a well-funded Government healthcare system, thus undercutting a core component of the Republican Party’s messaging. 

“In a pandemic, you don’t want people avoiding getting tested or treated because they can’t afford a $3,000 medical bill,” tweeted Ro Khanna, a Democratic Party Congressman and Bernie Sanders’ spokesperson. “We’re only as safe as the least insured person among us. Everyone has to be covered.”

The contagion has also exposed the folly of Trump’s Cold War era logic, making a mockery of claims portending to the idea that walls, barriers and international isolation can keep us safe from transnational problems such as disease, climate change, terrorism and organised crime.

Transnational problems require transnational solutions. Hopefully the Coronavirus has served as a powerful reminder that no man is an island and that we are all in this together.

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