This article is written by Julian Cao and Frank Li, research analysts at Global China Study.
This article provides a brief analysis of the response of three countries in the early stages of the Covid-19. The analysis takes a system of government perspective and describes the institutional set-up of government in each country and why these set-ups played an important role in the outbreak crisis response. Our view is that unitary systems of government have an advantage over federal systems of government in the initial crisis response.
The first indigenous case of Covid in Korea was detected on January 19, 2020. The infection rate peaked on 29 February 2020. The Korean government took effective steps to bring the number of new and confirmed COVID-19 infections under control in just 20 days (Government of the Republic Korea, 2020). Compared to the US, Korea has been a great success. I will analyse why the Korean government’s policies have been successful in the context of the country’s political system.
South Korea is a democratic unitary state with limited autonomy for local governments. The central government directly lead local governments. For the public health sector, which is primarily responsible for fighting the epidemic, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (KMHW) and the Korean Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) oversee regional health agencies and make recommendations. At the same time, the KMHW and KCDC are under the direct authority of the national government. Local officials directly manage the health departments in their areas (You, 2020,802). It is worth noting that the KMHW and KCDC just give professional advice and policy interpretation to local health departments, it is an informative mentoring relationship. This relationship may seem loose, but it serves a useful purpose. For example, the KCDC’s prevention and preparedness plan for dealing with infectious disease crises published in 2019, the year before the Covid epidemic, allowed local governments to develop and plan their own approaches to managing infectious diseases in line with the national government’s health arrangements.
In the early stages of Covid-19, the ability to identify patients was very quickly acquired in Korea. Back in December, when the virus was discovered in China, the KCDC was the first to hold discussions with experts from various countries. In January the KCDC officials obtained the final findings of the pandemic by experts and reached a conclusion. Such frequent meetings made the gravity of the situation clear to officials (KCDC Laboratory Control Centre for Infectious Diseases, 2020.3.7). The strength of the unitary system was demonstrated by a series of subsequent actions initiated by the government in collaboration with each other. rRT-PCR assays for coronaviruses were developed and evaluated by the KCDC in collaboration with the Medical Association very quickly in January 2020. Because of the permission from the central government, the EUA mechanism (a fast-track approval authorisation mechanism set up specifically for emergencies) of the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety was enabled and let the PCR test kit be approved quickly by all participating institutions (Korea National Institute of Health, the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine, the Korean Association of External Quality Assessment Service), effectively reducing the approval time by an additional 11 months (You, 2020,803). This rapid authorization was missing in the United States early in the epidemic. The Korean government has also worked with high-tech companies to develop a mobile application for tracking COVID-19. Through these measures, the Korean government has ensured a rapid and effective case tracking capability. Tracking cases is extremely important for individual isolation management and can effectively control infection rates.
In addition, Korea’s unitary system has demonstrated a strong inter-governmental coordination during the outbreak. According to the government report on the response to COVID-19, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters was put under the personal direction of Prime Minister Chung Se Kyun, and relevant central ministries were involved in the COVID-19 management by giving emergency supplies to local governments. Local governments at all levels were also the first to establish regional offices for disaster and security management. Local heads of government led these organisations, promulgated central policies, developed local pandemic refuting plans, and requested central help when local governments could not address the significant epidemic-related issues. 17 provincial and important city leaders also attended central meetings presided over by the prime minister in order to improve cooperation between central and local government. (Government of the Republic Korea, 2020). These close collaborations were unattainable in the federal United States, as these measures were based on the absolute voice of the central government. The central government’s focus and emphasis on close cooperation has also greatly influenced the media to report frequently on the danger and severity of the epidemic, which also affects people’s opinion to the Covid-19.
The United States
When the first case of COVID-19 was declared in the United States on 21 January, as in other more developed countries (China, Korea, Australia), the public health authorities and experts in the US were the first to realise the seriousness of the virus and to recommend measures to contain it and control the infection rate in the first instance (Parodi & Liu, 2020, 1441). However, the Trump government refused to take immediate measures, he downplayed the seriousness of the virus and shifted the blame onto the Chinese government as a way to divert public attention. Bob Woodward (2020) explicitly mentions in his book rage that in January Trump realised the seriousness of the virus, he still downplayed the seriousness of the virus just ‘to avoid causing panic to the public ‘. I believe that his behaviour was somewhat influenced by the political system. To explain the influence specifically, we can do a simple interest analysis of the various political units in the US under the federal system. First, unlike the unitary system, the governors of the states under the federal government are not strictly subordinate to the president – the governors are not controlled by the president and the states enjoy a high degree of autonomy under the constitution. This means that it is very difficult to take active, common measures. The governors’ priority is always their own political interests and the views of their constituents, so they do not necessarily listen to the advice of the federal government. However, voters are often faced with a lack of information. For example, the population does not have as full an understanding of the severity of the virus as experts do. Although the rate of serious illness estimated by the experts is high, people are only seeing a few deaths from the disease around them. Restrictions on travel, on the other hand, can actually have a real impact on people’s freedom and mood. So, it is very difficult for the president to conduct an active common policy, and the president always has to face a system containing a large number of political units with veto power when pursuing a policy.
Returning to the US crisis response, Trump’s rhetoric of downplaying the seriousness of the virus in the first instance prevented the US government from introducing swift and forceful policies – after all, you can’t say one thing and do another – and this prevented the US from fostering a sense of immediate crisis at the sub-national level. It was not until late February, a month later, that Vice President Mike Pence was appointed by the government to head the federal COVID-19 task team. By that time, virus transmission within the community had already occurred outside of the quarantine areas, meaning that the government could no longer contain the virus (Parodi & Liu, 2020, 1441). In fact, officials of the Department of Health and Human Services’ division did make an effort technically to help interrupt the virus by organizing Covid testing developing experiments. However, the development of testing technology for the Covid-19 virus still encountered strong bureaucratic resistance, and unlike South Korea, which I discussed earlier, the US federal political system failed to open up fast track and strongly support testing in the first place. This is partly because political actors under the federation are more liberal and loose and tend to avoid responsibility (Wibbels, 2005, 21-7), and partly because President Trump’s behaviour of diverting public attention and shirking responsibility has affected the unity of the bureaucracy at all levels. For example, the development of the COVID-19 PCR test kit, which was planned to take place at dozens of universities early in the outbreak, was not authorised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a timely and urgent manner. Shear er.al (2020) mentioned that as the need for testing became more urgent, communication between the CDC and FDA secretaries deteriorated in suspicion and avoidance of blame, further hindering the already troubled test rollout.
In addition to this, the efficiency of responding to Covid is influenced by partisanship. For example, states that are of the same party as the president seem to receive faster and more effective assistance (Nicholas, 2020); whereas some governors such as Cuomo felt that the president gave little help and even publicly blamed the president (Pengell, 2020). Many scholars (Fowler et.al, 2020; Wang, Devine, Molina-Sieiro, 2020) have noted that Democratic governors tend to implement Stay-at-home orders faster than Republican governors, all show that partisan political interests make the states run counter to the purpose of “the Federation working together as a nation as a whole”. Likewise, the strength of the policies implemented varies from state to state. Some states simply advise people to remain socially detached, while others impose mandatory stay-at-home orders. In fact, states with more moderate policies can put pressure on states with home-based orders, as people make conscious comparisons and perceive stay-at-home orders as strictly restricting their freedom.
Some may argue that the partisan divide I mentioned is irrelevant to federalism, however, in the case of South Korea, which is also divided, partisanship had a much smaller impact on the control of the epidemic. The literature suggests (Urman, 2020, 860-867; Yang et.al, 2016) that the divisions caused by partisan politics in South Korea are at least on par with the US, and Yang’s (2016) study even suggests that the degree of polarization in South Korea was even higher. And the results of the epidemic control suggest that such partisan politics did not affect the Korean government’s performance on the epidemic at all. It was federalism that gave the governor the opportunity to take partisanship into account. In a unitary system of government, administrative units are all accountable to their superiors, and the orders imposed by the Korean government must be obeyed and carried out by local government officials, so there is no high degree of regional differentiation in policies and attitudes to the epidemic. Instead, federalism gives officials at all levels a high degree of freedom, officials can thus consider their party affiliation and act in accordance with their political interests in controlling the epidemic. In fact, Korean officials did act in accordance with their political interests. Controlling the epidemic was the common political interest of Korean officials.
In summary, the US federal system is a system containing a large number of political units with veto power, and each level of government having its own political considerations, which makes it difficult to implement strict united policies and make the leaders shirk responsibility; The evasion of responsibility by leaders has led to a lack of unity across government departments and units under the federal government; The federal system allowed partisan divisions to have a major impact on controlling the outbreak.
The influence of government systems on the performance of the epidemic also applies to China.
The first case of COVID-19 was discovered in December 2019, when there were many cases of viral pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and the cause could not be found. It was finally identified as a novel coronavirus on 8 January 2020 and was officially named by the World Health Organization on 12 January 2020. As knowledge of the disease was not comprehensive at the time, timely prevention and control were not carried out, which led to widespread transmission. I will analyse how the government responded to the COVID-19 crisis through the institutional advantages of a unitary state under the Chinese political system
After the founding of New China, a unitary state structure was adopted. China’s unitary state structure has its own uniqueness or has taken on a new shape, which is mainly reflected in the implementation of the system of regional autonomy for ethnic groups and special administrative regions, which has created a new pattern of special relations between the State as a whole and a few localities. Article 3(4) of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China clearly states that the division of powers and functions of state institutions at the central and local levels follows the principle of giving full play to local initiative and activism under the unified leadership of the central government. China has a centralised authority, with local governments being delegated powers by the central government and subject to the central government’s unified leadership. One of the departments of the State Council, the National Health Commission, is responsible for organising the formulation of national health policies, coordinating the allocation of health resources and guiding the implementation of regional health plans.
On 6 April 2020, China’s State Council issued a notification to the governments of all provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government, updating the norms for the management of asymptomatic people infected with the new coronavirus, emphasising that asymptomatic people are infectious and at risk of transmission, and strengthening active testing of close contacts and of people with a history of travel to areas where cases of new coronavirus continue to spread, both within and outside China, to further strengthen prevention and control, and emphasised that all regions should increase efforts to disseminate scientific knowledge about the new coronavirus, guide the public on scientific protection, and conduct extensive training to improve the prevention and control capabilities and levels of grassroots medical and health personnel and community workers, etc., to ensure the health and safety of the people (Circular of the State Council on the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism for Responding to the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic on the Issuance of Specifications for the Management of Asymptomatic Infected Persons with the New Coronavirus,April 6th, 2020). This Circular reflects the greater ability of the central government to implement and enforce a unified policy nationwide under socialism with Chinese characteristics. It also further illustrates that a unitary state is more efficient in issuing and implementing policies and can coordinate and decide on national policies directly through the central government, avoiding the negative impact of differences between different regions on a national scale.
The interaction between the central government, local governments, and local health authorities also reflect the advantages of the differences in political systems between China and other countries. The central government in a unitary state can unify resources and coordinate planning and development. As different provinces are dealing with varying levels of crisis, a unitary state can quickly rationalise the deployment of national resources through central government decisions, addressing the instability of regional differences for a large country. On 18 January 2021, the State Council’s joint prevention and control mechanism for the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak was again issued to local governments at a time when China’s situation was such that significant strategic gains had been made in the prevention and control of the outbreak, which COVID-19 had effectively been controlled, but the risk of rebound could not be ignored. In response to the continued spread of the epidemic outside China and the successive localised clusters of epidemics in many parts of China, the central government issued the following requirements to local governments to consolidate the results of prevention and control: strengthen the construction of emergency command systems. Local governments’ main responsible leaders should refine and improve the prevention and control objectives and strengthen the front-line command force. In areas where a concentrated epidemic has occurred, the province where it is located must set up a front-line command centre while activating the emergency command system, with the main responsible leader of the provincial party committee or government sitting in command and all relevant groups cooperating and collaborating. At the same time, refined requirements are made for differences between provinces (e.g. different populations): cities with a resident population of less than 5 million can complete full testing within two days by coordinating resources within the province. Cities with a resident population of 5 million or more can complete testing within 3-5 days by coordinating local resources and national support. (State Council Response to the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism for the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Outbreak 18 January 2021)
This notification reflects the central government’s consideration of the difficulties faced by provinces with larger populations in responding to the crisis and its initiative to do a better job of preventing and controlling the outbreak through state support.
Later, during the more severe period of the epidemic in Shanghai, special planes delivered a total of 400 tons of beef and mutton from Inner Mongolia to Shanghai, and over 1,100 boxes of epidemic prevention materials such as masks, exterminators and medical equipment were transported from all over the country to the Shanghai area. Nearly 6 million copies of antigenic reagents were transported from Hangzhou to Shanghai (People’s Information, reported on 4 April 2022). This movement exemplifies the centralised decision-making that allows for quick and decisive action when the Unitary State responds to a crisis.
In conclusion, we think that unitary government may have an advantage over federal government in the initial crisis response. This is because the unitary government exemplifies the centralised decision-making that allows for quick and decisive action, executive officials have the same political interest in dealing with the epidemic. In contrast, federal system is a system containing a large number of political units with veto power, each level of government having its own political considerations, which makes it difficult to implement strict united policies and make the leaders shirk responsibility.
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