Inflection Point: COVID-19, State and Society

COVID-19 is proving calamitous, with over 250,000 deaths globally, including 70,000 deaths within the United States, and 50,000 across the continent of Africa. Its economic impact is in the never-before-seen realm, and uncertainty, even amid talk of ‘opening up,’ is growing, as new hot spots emerge and as everything from schools to professional sports contemplate next-steps.

Among the outcomes up in the air? State-society relations, everywhere, with long-term, potentially generational implications for the trajectory of post-pandemic health, development and prosperity.

State and Society under ‘Normal’

On the surface, the equation of what is state-society-coronavirus may seem rather straightforward: “strong” states, with robust central systems to track, monitor and treat new cases will fare better. They’ve either, since WWII, cobbled together an economy, tax regime and infrastructure to respond to a crisis, with designated personnel and effective governance to oversee it, or have earned public trust and garnered credibility to the point that its mere requests to social distance, or refrain from working, are heeded. The two most often concur, with capable, state institutions usually cultivating legitimacy, and deference. The somewhat beguiling case of Sweden suggests that, even without a sweeping response, earned trust can result in collective action and social cohesion.

Many states are either not so lucky, or its leaders have historically used the state apparatus (especially its tax collection, regulatory powers and enforcement capacity — ie, police and military) to enforce a personalistic agenda, including the accumulation of wealth, or squashing would-be business or political opponents. A mismanaged economy, meanwhile, suffers accordingly, hurting everyone. Thus a narrow, singular agenda hurts many. This process erodes trust to the point that, come a pandemic, orders to stay home without any compensation, its differential impacts and selective enforcement, enrage a populace, putting already frayed state-society relations on the ropes. Thus the equation is not as simple as strong states = strong societies. Societies can imbue states with legitimacy, or take it away, based on their perceptions and expectations.

Why it Matters

State-society relations are a fraught topic among development circles, always. Does official, foreign development assistance simply encourage more bad behavior, or squander tax-payer money? But doesn’t working outside of official circles further undermine them, and create an NGO culture and perverse economy? But don’t we need capable states to provide health and manage economies? Yes.

But whatever the current development assistance milieu, and however many non-state actors (think separatist or terrorist organizations, or simply religious leaders with out-sized clout in a region where the government is largely absent) have a say in day-to-day affairs on the ground, the state is rather unavoidable. Even in the most hamstrung of countries, a health ministry may be the only line of defense for a public health emergency, while a central power, no matter how rickety, may be the only entity with enough reach, or resources, to disperse equipment, or even communicate or request help, with one voice. Moreover, the “bureaucracy” itself is staffed by people, doing their work, and often wanting to make a positive change, no different than here, even as the elite might undermine that effort from up above. States matter, and how they behave now may determine the trajectory of their country’s well being well into the future.

States and Society in Flux

Ethiopia: Whose State of Emergency?

Take Ethiopia, who declared a 5-month state of emergency on April 8th. This might be a responsible reaction on the part of Nobel Peace Prize winner / President Abiy’s government in the face of a pandemic. But in a heightened political climate which has included a dramatic rise in incoming refugees, a literal plague of locusts, and a series of violent protests across different ethnic states (with one including a coup attempt that killed several top officials), a sudden, expansive grab of power looks to some more like a threat rather than a mere responsible public policy response.

In previous states of emergency, in 2016 and 2018, the state used its power to conduct mass arrests and torture, thus further putting on edge those communities that have borne the brunt of previous state responses to crises. Watershed elections scheduled for September, following a political sea change in the country, the fallout of which is still being tallied, were essential to legitimizing the current political process. An indefinite delay will likely further harden ill will among the government’s detractors.

How the government of Ethiopia responds in the face of the current crisis will either consolidate democracy, or accelerate the ethnic and regional tensions that could spiral out of control, in what is one of the region’s emerging powerhouses. Thus, it can be transparent in how it reschedules the elections, work with emerging opposition parties, and acknowledge systemic economic and political inequalities and barriers to greater success yet, and the polity might reward it through peace and engagement with the process. If, however, however, the current government defaults to a position of strength-over-opposition, stifles dissent, and uses its State of Emergency for short term gain, it risks fracturing the tenuous ethic federation beyond repair. 

Malawi: Coronavirus to the rescue of a lame-duck President?

Malawi is also sitting on the brink. Previously annulled elections, which local judges agreed were marred by “irregularities,” are scheduled for July. On the one hand, the government acted swiftly, closing schools and large gatherings. On the other, it used the opportunity to emblazon public “sanitizers” and other responders with ruling party symbols, and has since banned campaigning. Perhaps more symbolic of the country’s more grim predicament, the constitutional court blocked the government from implementing its lockdown because, accurately, it was not providing financial assistance to the stall owners and street merchants, among others, that would likely face starvation. That may be getting resolved, thanks to a World Bank lifeline, though whether the state can provide its share is still in doubt. Perhaps more critically, whether the state will focus on addressing the needs of ‘ordinary citizens’ versus politicizing the response is even more in doubt.

The current government’s legitimacy has already been undermined because of the annulled elections, combined with a recent history of graft and corruption charges. With the uncertainty of elections, and even the response to coronavirus itself tied up in courts (along with a dire cash shortage), how the next few month’s evolve—both politically and epidemiologicaly—will in part determine how capable the state remains thereafter to manage more basic functions, including its macroeconomy. A failure to govern appropriately, including any efforts to use coronavirus to distort the rescheduled elections, could result in a political fracture that hamstrings economic recovery, and state-society relations, irrevocably.  

Myanmar: More of the same, just more of it

The credibility of the Myanmar statebuilding project was one already in doubt before the first contracted cases, but its drivers and architecture are even more evident now. As Andrew Nachemson writes in, “responding to a crisis with a mixture of denial and fervent nationalism is not a new strategy in Myanmar.”

Indeed, as the case count crept upwards, officials touted that a combination of superior immune systems and devout Buddhism would protect the country from more, leaving in the wind what happens to its millions of non-Buddhists. More than mere rhetoric, this state-sanctioned Buddhist nationalism is of the same kind that underwrote the mass expulsion of Rohingya from Rakhine State, and is used as a tool to shield Aung-San Suu Kyi and the ruling NLD party from criticism—from home and abroad—and now apparently from COVID-19. As part of the wider ethnic Bamar domination of politics and economics, the Tatmadaw (Burmese military forces) continued its operations in ethnic states including Karen, Shan, Rakhine, and Chin.

Suu Kyi’s statebuilding project—fueled by Buddhist-nationalism (and to some degree, Buddhist infrastructure, including schools)—has always been about Bamar domination, at the expense of basic human rights and economic development in ethnic regions. Coronavirus hasn’t changed that, but temporarily provides cover, if thin. At the same time, however, this is the only strategy that media-savvy monks allow, and they stand ever-poised to flood Facebook with tirades should Suu Kyi or the NLD either “show mercy,” or deviate from this strategy, risking real electoral loss. Thus if COVID-19 cases spike, and its ailing healthcare system is overwhelmed, Suu Kyi may yet have to face the music at home, which would upend politics and stability in Myanmar. Since this is too risky, more likely is that detached, nationalist rhetoric will drown out voices of reason and concern, for the sake of the greater statebuilding project.

Conclusion: Just a Global South Problem? Guess Again

By no means are the effects of COVID-19 on state-society relations relegated to the Global South. In essence, states and society are in a constant dialogue, in which leadership, effective policy and transparent institutions are rewarded with trust, which creates confidence, which allows for civil and human rights as well as economic development. At a time in which an existential threat to the United States risks lives and the economy, we might, as we have managed to do historically, come together to weather the storm as a nation.

But here too narrow political interests have played on and exacerbated growing divisions within society. Leadership, meanwhile, has only spurred, rather than quell, these forces, and sewn further division and discord, in essence politicizing the threat no differently than leaders elsewhere. With what appears to be our failure to act collectively despite 70,000+ deaths, breaking from tradition, the stage is set for only further discord, the intensification of opposition—whether popularly or in Congress—to whomever is in high office, and in essence the decline of effective governance as we’ve known it and had demanded. This is one of our key historical junctions, then, to which our response will set the stage for, not only economic recovery, but the nature of our institutions and state-society relations for a generation.

The United States has historically possessed many of the elements that distinguish “strong” states from weak ones, even if its model differed from many others. It still possesses flagship institutions that are as much global as they are national, and all of its problems aside, our democracy has been a model for many new and aspiring countries. But nothing is static, nor given, and like elsewhere, COVID-19 appears to be rearranging our own state-society calculus.