Wednesday, March 25, 2020


As of this writing, just about 60,000 Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus, and our death toll has surpassed 900. Given the current, inadequate resources to track and account for the virus’ spread, we should — as government functionaries at both the state and federal level remind — expect infection rates are actually much greater than what has hitherto been reported. What this implies for the mortality rate we don’t need to spell out.

And while no one likes reading grim statistics (to say nothing of even darker projections), they are, in a bizarre way, a kind of cold comfort. If we can trust our data, we know where we stand in respect to combating the virus, irrespective of what spin the media or politicians might attempt.

In countries ruled by dictators, quasi-dictators, or even your average run-of-the-mill strongmen, the opposite is true. That is, the data is usually purposefully wrong, especially if the truth would cause embarrassment to the leader. (The rule of thumb here is to watch what the government does, not says.) So we find, unsurprisingly, that North Korea reports zero cases of infection or that Russia, which shares a nearly 3000-mile-long border with China, reports only having around 700 cases (and only one death).

The intuition by rulers like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un is that denying, downplaying, or underreporting the coronavirus is more cost-effective, from a political standpoint, than acknowledging its presence. For to acknowledge it as real, they would have to confront it, and it just so happens that neither of these tough-guys have the resources — long drained deep into Swiss bank accounts — to adequately do that.

But it is precisely in these moments that, we would argue, it is imperative even strongmen rulers do the sensible thing by telling the truth and asking for help. This is a rare instance where it is sensible democracies and despots work together against a common enemy.

Mr. Putin recently announced that he was suspending next month’s national vote on constitutional amendments that, if passed (hint: it always passes when his interests are concerned), would allow him to rule over Russia until 2036, and that next week all non-essential work was suspended. Remember our golden rule about watching what a government does, not says, during a crisis? Apply it to Russia and you will get a sense of the troubles that lie ahead of the country.

What Mr. Putin must now face, whether he likes it or not, is an outbreak of sickness and death that could have been blunted had he allowed and encouraged open reporting of the pandemic’s spread throughout the country. We hope, too, that Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), both of whom have pooh-poohed the seriousness of the virus and both of whom share, shall we say, some of the same approaches to ruling as Mr. Putin, are taking note.

We also hope that the United States and other liberal democracies are offering what support they can even to regimes we otherwise sanction. Put simply, the coronavirus does not play politics, and until we find a cure, remaining outbreaks even in seemingly far-away North Korea, will make their way back to our shores.

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