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This is Not a Game

by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 26/2021 from Mar 09, 2021

Jessica Gienow-Hecht

Is this the conversation we want to have? Pitching nation states against each other, calling out winners and losers?

LBJ New Orleans Airport Hurricane Betsy

LBJ New Orleans Airport Hurricane Betsy
Image Credit: Yoichi Okamoto (Wikimedia Commons)

Zürn and Gerhards make a valid point: The key to disease control is control of movement and data, digitally and otherwise. Börzel and Risse, in turn, ask us to pause and consider other factors, including social conformism and historical experiences such as previous deadly epidemics. Added to that, not only the political and economic systems of the states perused differ, so do their methods of assessing and reporting casualties.


Science and the Liberal Script

There are two elephants in the room that both entries leave unaddressed. One is the disparity between control and innovation, the other concerns the interplay of public welfare and political leadership. First, there is a difference to be made between reactive population management and proactive scientific inquiry. While regimes marked by greater social control (many of which tend to be illiberal, really), may be better at reactive measures including tracking people, liberal regimes are better equipped to act proactively, notably in terms of scientific pursuit (see varieties of vaccines). Note that Pfizer rejected public funding originally “to liberate our scientists” and to “keep Pfizer out of politics.”[i] Timothy Ferris has argued that science itself is intrinsically liberal because it requires decentralization, individualism, and the ability to think without restraint.[ii] Science was integral to the age of revolutions and the rise of the liberal script; communism, fascism, and fundamentalism have typically opposed free scientific inquiry and, instead, organized science to serve political ends. China manages to “control” the pandemic not because of but despite its resistance to key tenets of the liberal script. What is worse, if we are to believe German physicist Roland Wiesendanger, the coronavirus may actually have leaked from a Wuhan research lab—a reminder that science in the hands of totalitarian regimes can turn into an explosive instrument of power.


When Governments Act

Second, states with low social control may simply require different trajectories to act decisively, and political leadership may have to wait longer to seize the opportunity to act decisively. In China, public welfare supersedes individual opposition. Debates regarding public welfare in liberal democracies, in contrast, tend to be filtered by (individual and political) ethical objections, e.g., regarding life expectancy.

As a result, political leadership and inspiration gain prime significance in active disease control in liberal states although, historically speaking, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the age of television, governmental figure heads felt little inclination to do much when a disaster struck. While there are exceptions (e.g., Franklin D. Roosevelt and the 1930s Dust Bowl), whenever epidemics or natural disasters struck, both liberal and illiberal regimes used to consider them as something of a given that happened either by divine will or a freak of nature, beyond governmental reach and responsibility. One of the first modern state leaders who felt compelled to do anything about a major disaster, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, was concerned as much with winning the next elections as with alleviating the disaster. Historian Gareth Davies[iii] has described how Senate majority whip Russell B. Long (D-LA) called Johnson, in September 1965, urging him to pay an immediate visit to New Orleans, then devastated by Hurricane Betsy. “If you go there right now, Mr. President,” Long exclaimed, “they couldn’t beat you if Eisenhower ran.” Two hours later (!), down South the president went. There, in a converted elementary school, a flashlight pointed to his face, he thundered to hundreds of refugees : “I am your president and I am here to help.” He ordered the provision of drinking water, commanded the Air Force to bring in engineers to repair the telephone lines, and set in motion a host of federal agencies to support relief action for victims on site.

The story is instructive—it highlights the emergence of political leadership (“consoler-in-chief,” says Davies) in the name of public welfare. Liberal or not, political leaders and their regimes act decisively when a specific course of action legitimizes their existence and control by way of responsibility, need, or popular desire, and all four authors note as much. The difference may be that liberal states with low social control need more time and more astute political leadership to inspire collective action in the name of crisis control.

And here we go again: Weeks prior to his inauguration, U.S. president Joe Biden pledged to get “at least 100 million Covid vaccine shots into the arms of the American people” within his first 100 days in office.[iv] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of March 2nd, more than 50 million Americans have already been vaccinated, half of them twice.[v] It is true that the incoming president profited from policies set in motion by his predecessor, but it is also about the leadership vision for a population difficult to manage by way of masks and social distancing. Health officials agree that, after January 20th, the speed of vaccination and prevention accelerated thanks to better exchange with the federal government. A Gallup poll published on February 26th, announced that the American people’s satisfaction with the U.S. has doubled since January with Corona ranking as the top challenge[vi]—meaning the nation is fast catching up as a runner in disease control, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of public perception.

So, if this is a game, the jury is still out: Neither is the pandemic over nor is this the time to designate a champion half-way through its course. But this is not a game and, in the end, wherever we are in this world, we all lost … far too much.


I would like to thank Heiko Hecht and Tanja Börzel for discussing this essay with me.

Jessica Gienow-Hecht is the Director of the John-F.-Kennedy-Institute at Freie Universität Berlin and a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS

[i] https://www.axios.com/pfizer-ceo-says-he-wouldve-released-vaccine-data-before-election-if-possible-a4f0c822-bf49-4a04-ac7f-5275c8d895b4.html

[ii] Timothy Ferris (2010) The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature.

[iii] Gareth Davies (2017) “The Historical Presidency: Lyndon Johnson and Disaster Politics,” DOI: 10.1111/psq.12384.

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/08/world/one-pandemic-two-presidents-a-split-screen-moment-underscores-the-clashing-approaches-of-trump-and-biden.html

[v] https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations.

[vi] https://news.gallup.com/poll/330194/satisfaction-improved-recent-decline.aspx.