Historically, international shocks on the scale of Covid-19 have been accompanied by the rise and fall of grand governmental systems. World War I collapsed imperial monarchies from Prussia to Persia, the Great Depression triggered a global wave of fascism, World War II set the stage for a decades-long battle between democracy and communism, and the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in our current American-led liberal international order.
This time, however, none of the competing models on offer have distinguished themselves clearly. China has done its best to make hay out of western disorder, noisily shipping off masks and ventilators to states whose normal trading partners can or will not supply them. China points to its radical recovery in March and insists that its ability to move mountains administratively through tight centralised control of government makes it more capable of dealing with the pandemic than disorganised, markets reliant powers of old.
However, multiple governments who purchased supplies from China, including Ireland, have since declared that they did not meet quality control standards and are therefore an endangerment to the public. We will never be able to compare China's true virus statistics to those of other states because it is obvious they are lying about them. It is not just the absurdly low death rate that tells us this, but the cliff-like dive in reported infections that occurred the moment a mirage of competency became politically expedient. Even if we ignore its current domestic situation and look only at the culture of systematic secrecy which allowed the disease to spread from Wuhan in the first place, it is clear that China is not the answer governmentally, but the primary problem.
The populist challengers to liberalism haven't fared much better. The Guardian diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour recently speculated that the only outright losers in the Covid-19 debate are America-First cranks like Steve Bannon, who, in gutting their own healthcare system and propelling to power a dim-witted pathological liar, will soon stand responsible for thousands of preventable deaths.
While obviously true so far as it goes, this analysis is too simple. Bannon, along with many other early adopters of Trumpism - though ironically not Trump himself - were among the first westerners to seriously identify Covid-19 as a threat to the system back in January. This is not all that surprising when you consider how well the idea of a deadly foreign virus fits into the broader nativist narrative, but another reason that figures on the fringes of polite society seemed to get this one right is that they felt no pressure to go along uncritically with the soothing declarations of authoritative institutions.
Two institutions, in particular, are symbolic of the administrative model's failure: the EU and the WHO. If there is one thing the EU was designed for, it's pooling resources for the sake of efficiency, yet, in this moment, when resource efficiency is of greater importance than at any time in living memory, it has retreated into obscurity. Almost all coordination between European states has taken place at the executive level, without any EU assistance. Indeed, the most noteworthy thing an EU institution has done in the last two months was critically delay Italian crisis response through an initial unwillingness, on the part of the ECB, to lower interest rates.
The WHO's failures are more serious. From early January they have essentially carried water for the Chinese Communist Party, parroting their initial no human-to-human transmission line despite better information being offered to them by Taiwan - whose existence they refuse to recognise - and advising against travel bans.
More bizarre still is their insistence, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the general use of face masks is not effective in combatting the virus on a community-wide scale. There are two explanations for this continued promulgation of misinformation. The first is that it is a noble lie, designed to prevent mask hoarding. If so, it is anathema to the communal solidarity overcoming this pandemic requires of us. The second is that there is some practically impossible gold-standard test which they require before signing off on anything as an institution, in order to avoid culpability for mistakes. If so, as with the EU, we are dealing with a problem of dire bureaucratic inefficiency.
With no easy fixes available, I suggest that we must mix and match systems in order to produce something stronger going forward. The executive agility of the Chinese model is desirable, and crucial for any future iteration of the EU, but it must be decoupled from control over the levers of information dispersal. A new social contract must be drawn up between expert institutions and democratic society at large. While the information they provide is indispensable, they must operate so as to empower us to solve our problems collectively, rather than treating us as just another variable in the technocratic fixes they formulate unilaterally. When they don't have the answers, they must be honest about this and remain receptive to better information, whatever corner of society it comes from. We must also reinvest heavily in the hardscrabble public services we do know how to provide on mass, which this crisis has revealed to be so essential.
A change in our political culture will be necessary to achieve this. If we want agility without oppression and expertise without disinformation, we must be more accepting of experimentation. One of the biggest lessons coming out of this, is that we do not make ourselves safer by trying to insulate against short run failure. This, in practice, is a buck passing strategy which only inflates bubbles, be they economic or informational, such that when they finally pop, they do so with world deranging power.