Failed state calling kettle black

Editorial | Mary Ma 12 Mar 2020

Remember how Hong Kong was criticized for apparently showing signs of a failed state in an ironic commentary not that long ago?

Those signs are now recurring everywhere - from Japan to South Korea, Italy to Britain and Australia to the United States - where sanitizers and toilet rolls are being snapped up as soon as supermarket shelves are refilled.

Perhaps the only dramatic scene missing is a toilet roll hold-up.

That ought to have to do with humans' natural instinct rather than culture. If the observation about Hong Kong being a failing were true, the planet would now be full of failed states.

The near-pandemic coronavirus is providing an extremely rare test of two opposing political systems - namely, communism as advocated by China and democracy as championed by the West and led by the United States.

President Xi Jinping's televised appearance in Wuhan a couple of days ago may be viewed as a milestone in Beijing's fight against the virus. Otherwise, he would not have gambled on a visit to the epicenter of the country's epidemic that has killed or sickened so many people.

By appearing in Wuhan, Xi effectively asserted that China had won a battle and the world should view it as a successful example.

In China, although official statistics often lack credibility, the move by its top leader could fill the gap. Xi's public appearance at ground zero was made to confirm the epidemic situation has stabilized in the mainland.

Such a stringent nationwide lockdown is only possible in China because people are subject to constant state control under the political system.

While the Chinese-style of control seems to have worked in putting down the epidemic in the country, can the same be replicated in the United States where outbreaks have just begun?

Apparently, Americans aren't prepared to follow suit. Though tasking Vice President Mike Pence with overseeing the country's health response, President Donald Trump is still maintaining a laissez-faire approach and not demonstrating the kind of leadership expected in a crisis. Or perhaps he doesn't believe it's a health emergency at all.

Confirmed cases in the United States surpassed 1,000 on Tuesday. But that number must be a gross underestimation thanks to the low number of tests being carried out in the country where people can be slapped with expensive bills for testing and subsequent treatment.

In February, a Florida man with symptoms was reported to have been handed a US$3,270 (HK$25,400) bill from his insurance company after having a coronavirus test.

The actual infection figure would be much higher if Pence was really able to make good on his pledge to make tests available to all Americans referred by doctors.

A big problem is that many Americans do not have medical insurance and will not go for a test at all because of the huge bills they would face afterwards. And if they had to remain in hospital, they would go broke.

The United States is an extreme laissez-faire case compared with China's draconian lockdown.

Despite their country's state-of-the-art medical technology, Americans do not necessarily benefit from it because of the inadequacy of a public health system like that of Britain's NHS or the SAR's public hospital services.

So which system will people choose after the near-pandemic is over? Academics may learn from future immigration figures.

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