How Coronavirus Exposes Bad Governments

When the tide is out, you see who’s swimming naked

Warren Buffet once said, “you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” A pandemic like COVID-19 is the tide going out across the world. You can really see who’s swimming naked.

Illustration by Eva Bee for The Guardian


China is an authoritarian government. They have a huge apparatus dedicated to listening in on citizens, but not listening to them, as Zeynep Tufecki writes.

An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late. (The Atlantic)

When Chinese doctors said that a SARS-like disease was spreading in December, the Chinese government censored and punished them. This guaranteed the pandemic we’re seeing today. With a disease that’s growing exponentially, the first few weeks are the only chance you get to contain it. China wasted that time trying to contain the doctors.

The censorship policy was so automatic that news may have never even reached the right people. It was just muted out, like any form of dissent. In the absence of transparent information, celebrations for the Lunar New Year — the largest migration event in the world — continued apace. On January 19th, the party held a family dinner for over 40,000 people in Wuhan.

Only on January 20th did the government wake up and spring into large-scale, authoritarian action. However, by the time you’re quarantining 50 million people, it’s not really a quarantine, it’s desperation. The tide had already gone out. China’s authoritarian government was swimming naked.


The US hasn’t seen an epidemic yet, but they’re definitely swimming naked as well. Under President Donald Trump, they have systematically eliminated their only direct defense against pandemics, on the grounds that it was something Obama did.

For the United States, the answers are especially worrying because the government has intentionally rendered itself incapable. In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. (Foreign Policy)

All of the organizations built in response to Ebola have been dismantled. At an executive level, the US is flying into this pandemic blind. Blinded, really.

At a deeper level, the US is also highly exposed because of a globally anomalous public health system. The United States is the only major developed country to lack universal health care. What this means is that someone getting a coronavirus test can get billed $3,000, whereas such tests are free and widely available in places like Korea. Korea even has drive-thru testing. In the US, millions of people will avoid going to a doctor because they simply can’t afford it. These are ripe conditions for a pandemic. People will get sick, and authorities won’t even know.

The US is also one of the few countries in the world without paid leave. Especially in the service and food industries, people are used to working while sick. Also, another sure way to spread an infectious disease like COVID-19. However, millions of people cannot afford to stay home as they are advised to do. Because backward American labor policies have left an entire population swimming naked.

Iran’s Deputy Health Minister having coronavirus while trying to reassure the public


Iran has its own internal authoritarian problems, like China, leading to what seems to be a huge under-reporting of cases. The number of deaths and cases simply don’t match, given a mortality rate of 2% there should be many more. But Iran has another problem.

The ongoing US-led sanctions against the country have crippled the health system and created another global weak spot for the virus to exploit. Because of banking sanctions on the nation, they cannot get medical supplies, including vital tests.

“Several international companies are ready to ship the coronavirus diagnosis kit to Iran, but we cannot pay them,” said Ramin Fallah, vice president of the Iranian Union of Importers of Medical Equipment, in a Monday interview with Iranian media. “They also insist that the money should only be sent through banks. Although there are ways to get around [sanctions], it is time-consuming.” (National Interest)

The coronavirus, of course, does not care about this decades-long grudge the US has against Iran. It just sees a weak spot and attacks, and in this interconnected world, those cases are spreading to other countries.

The bad politics of generational sanctions, which don’t seem to work anywhere and kill in good times, are terribly exposed during a pandemic. This is the tide going out, and you can see the true cruelty and danger of placing an entire country under political siege.


The Japanese ‘quarantine’ of the Diamond Princess cruise ship was a disastrous decision that directly led to cases in the United States and across the world. Because Japan completely lacks an organization like the CDC, they took a political and frankly medieval decision to quarantine a cruise ship with a few cases. This was not a real quarantine, as the staff was still in shared quarters and the sick and healthy were not separated. The policy, in effect, brewed coronavirus — turning a few cases into well over 700.

Those passengers were haphazardly released, first the Japanese ones and then across the world. The US botched the repatriation of their citizens, leading to a spread of COVID-19 around the Travis Air Force base, where they were improperly quarantined, and now up and down the west coast.

The source of all this trouble is the lack of a proper public health body in Japan. When the pandemic tide went out, Japan was swimming naked. And the world was exposed.

The World

As you can see from all of these cases, a bad policy in any one country is not isolated. Borders are immaterial to COVID-19. It only sees weakness and strength and one weak spot is all it needs to spread.

In better times, we’d just live with bad policies for generations. The people drowning stay underwater for years and we don’t really notice them. Now, however, the tide is out. We can see that the inhumanity and idiocy of bad policies affects us all. Coronavirus has pulled back the tide across the entire world. We are all swimming naked, and we are all now exposed.