Determining the capability of the state's basic functionalities is the central goal of failed state theory. Now, in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, some theorists are beginning to consider a state's capacity to provide high-quality, consistent medical care to its citizens as a significant determinant of measuring state failure.
When we talk about failed states, usually the nations that come to mind are Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, amongst others in the Middle East and Global South. States like the aforementioned are commonly deemed "failed states" due to their inability to establish legitimate central authority and full control over their territory.
These nations are also considered less capable of providing essential public services. In contrast, Western states are believed to be the epitome of good governance, states that not only maintain legitimate control over their respective territories, but also ensure necessities like housing, education, and healthcare to their citizens.
Rethinking failed states in the time of Covid-19
Taking these Western states as models of success, failed state theorists often prescribe that countries in the Global South aspire to a similar form of governance, level of territorial control, and provision of public services. These thinkers often do not consider the colonial legacies or current neo-colonial realities that hindered these countries and allowed others to flourish.
While this assessment of state functions might seem to be based on universal standards, failed state theorists often have specific types of state in mind – mainly postcolonial societies, with their poor infrastructures and dysfunctional governments. If it is not already explicit, the underlining intention of failed state theory is to protect the West's superiority over the rest.
At the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, many thought that the West would handle the pandemic better than its impoverished counterparts. In contrast, and with utter surprise to many, a few countries in the Global South have managed to successfully keep the spread of the virus in check, while the poor handling of the pandemic in many Western nations has raised questions concerning the capabilities of their respective state institutions.
States in the Global South that quickly intervened at the outset of the pandemic and engaged their institutions to prevent further spread have been largely successful in curbing the outbreak and flattening rates of new infections and death.
We can identify two different types of governance in the handful of developing states that sprang into action almost immediately after tracing their first cases. The first one is the authoritarian communist regime, and the second is the relatively democratic or "hybrid" model, an admixture of democratic and authoritarian systems.
Among authoritarian communist regimes, seemingly successful cases include China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Among the democratic setup, two apparently successful cases are Nepal and the Indian state of Kerala – and in both places, democratically elected communist governments are in power.
Infringing civil liberties: A dilemma
The policy that successful states undertook to combat Covid-19 has been dubbed by many as a "people before profit" or "life over livelihood" approach. The bottom line of this approach is to avoid pursuing easy profit or conducting business at the expense of health; rather, it is imperative to keep people alive and healthy.
It is interesting to note that despite the history of gross human rights violations in the past, in contrast to their Western counterparts, communist regimes in countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba took the Covid-19 outbreak seriously and acted swiftly, saving lives as a result. Some countries were even proactive, for example, Vietnam began its preparations weeks before the detection of the country's first case.
The use of Orwellian surveillance by these communist states has enormously helped them to quickly implement strict institutional quarantine measures through meticulous contact tracing and comprehensive testing. Further, they undertook proactive lockdown measures, enforced aggressive social distancing, and thoroughly screened ports of entry to isolate infected travelers.
These draconian measures reaped great benefits- instead of placing the entire country in quarantine, they were able to contain the spread in specific places, which gave them an enormous advantage in selectively mobilising health workers from other regions in those infected areas.
Whether in South or Southeast Asia or Africa, successful non-communist states more or less all followed the same communist strategy of infringing civil liberties, and in some cases, even used high-tech surveillance to intervene in the private sphere, much like in China. Each state's ability to act early gave it a considerable benefit, and this was certainly the case for low or lower-middle income countries with poor health care infrastructures.
All of the successful states have relatively well-funded and efficient systems for delivering public services. This baseline infrastructure coupled with effective leadership – i.e., to realise the danger of massive outbreak and effectively coordinate public and private sectors to act – benefited each in containing the virus without much spread.
In contrast to some of the nations in the Global South, the West failed to contain the spread. The US, considered the leader of the Western world, has become the epicenter of the outbreak, with four percent of the world's population yet 25 percent of Covid-19 cases. As exemplified by the failure of the US to quickly and efficiently contain the outbreak similarly inadequate responses by other Western governments and their resultant economic crises have prompted some commentators to deem them the new "failed states".
Failure to ensure institutional quarantine for all infected or to implement screening in ports of entry (like in Thailand and Vietnam), poor contact tracing, an ensuing politico-cultural debate regarding the use of masks, and an overall unwillingness to break corporate control of the health care sector soon lead to disaster in the US.
Despite having a well-funded and largely efficient public health care system, Western European states similarly failed to realise the severity of Covid-19 and, like the US, are experiencing a comparable degree of calamity, unlike their Eastern European counterparts who acted almost immediately with a public healthcare system.
A trade between life and liberties
A recent study in Nature shows that lockdowns might have helped to avert an estimated 531 million Covid-19 infections across six countries – China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France, and the US – out of which 60 million can be attributed solely to the US. Unlike far-left Communist governments, all far-right governments including those in the US, the UK, Brazil, Iran, and India adopted denial as their initial approach.
As a result, they could not effectively engage their states in order to beat the pandemic. Like in the West, some states in the Global South like Mexico, Peru, Chile, Pakistan, and Bangladesh also failed to mobilise their institutions to combat contagion. Their failures were understood by the global community as the result of weak healthcare infrastructures, high population density, severe poverty, and a lower standard of living- all factors that would explain Covid-19's devastating effects on each country.
The state is the most critical organisational structure in modern times.The significant aspect that differentiates the state from other organisations is that only the state can apply power to its citizens. The democratic state applies this force lawfully and legitimately; on the contrary, the authoritarian state applies it by evading the laws.
Some are concerned that the surveillance strategies successfully adopted by states to combat the pandemic might help them apply the same strategies in the post-pandemic period, which eventually would make them more authoritarian.
The Covid-19 pandemic ultimately poses a challenge to the trade between life and liberties. Unfortunately, the only way to beat the epidemic is to curtail some rights for a short period of time.
However, it might be safe to assume that for states with a long tradition of democracy, this temporary curtailment of civil liberties would not hamper the same liberties after Covid-19. Yet the issue of Covid-19 surveillance adds new dimension to the authoritarian regimes' long practice of monitoring citizens.
Sayeed Iftekhar Ahmed is a faculty member at the School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University System. He is the author of Water for Poor Women: Quest for an Alternative Paradigm.