PONARS Eurasia Podcast Episode 5: The Comparative Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic with Şener Aktürk

PONARS Eurasia
29 May 2020

How have different systems of government influenced responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? Why have some countries managed to effectively curb the spread of the Coronavirus, while others continue to see rising numbers of infections and fatalities? What can we learn from exploring these comparisons, and how social attitudes and state policies around the globe moving forward?

In this week's episode of the PONARS Eurasia Podcast, Maria Lipman chats with Şener Aktürk (Koç University, Istanbulto learn more about the comparative politics of the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen Here (blubrry)


Maria: [00:00:09] Hello everyone. This is Maria Lipman and our PONARS Eurasia podcast featuring a series of discussions about Russia and Eurasia, about the region's politics, and about other Russia and Eurasia related topics. With my guest, Şener Aktürk, who I will introduce a bit later, we will talk about what defines how various countries cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although theories abound, consensus is scarce. So scarce indeed that Şener has called it a battle of interpretations.

How is Russia coping with the COVID-19 pandemic? Better than many Western countries if you listen to Russian officials. On May 11th, Tatiana Golikova, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister said that in Russia, the mortality rate is more than 7.4 times lower than the world average.

Meanwhile, there has been a stream of media publications showing that the COVID-19 mortality in Russia is significantly underrated. Authors differ on how significant the underestimating is. Some say the actual number is 70% higher, others claim that the reported number of deaths accounts for only one-third of the real fatalities. But even if we multiply the reported number by three, the level of fatalities will still be lower than in many Western countries.

While, the statistics of underrated fatality in Russia is incomplete and the evidence often anecdotal, such reports are fairly numerous in the Western as well as Russian, non-government sources.

One reason can be that they reaffirm the common perception of the Russian government as deceitful, corrupt, and careless when it comes to people's needs and even lives - which is not to say that those reports are untrue, I just point out that the evidence is certainly inconclusive. Beneath some of the coverage, one can trace the hope of Putin's critics that poor performance would weaken him politically.

Of course, Russia is hardly the only country where the assessment of the government's performance is politicized. The mortality rates may sound like an appropriate criterion of a government's performance - indeed - what can be more important than saving people's lives?

In late April, President Putin said that he did not accept the approach that treats the economy and material wellbeing as a top priority. To us, he said, the most important thing is people and their lives. This might make for good political rhetoric, or not if people don't trust it, but this is not where the dilemma lies.

Taking care of people's health and doctors' safety is, of course, also an economic issue. A lockdown may help save people's lives, but it comes at a cost, not just of an economic downfall, impoverishment, and unemployment, but also of other people's health and lives. For instance, because many non-COVID patients are unable to get treatment or surgery when they need it.

This is just one example of the scores of challenges, dilemmas, and tradeoffs decision-makers are facing these days. The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet in sight, and it may be too early to draw conclusions on which countries did better than others, but the temptation to explain what defines countrys' performance is too hard to resist.

Since the West has been hit hard by the COVID-19 comparisons and interpretations mostly centered around Western nations - why Germany has done better than Italy or Spain, why Britain has been worse than France, et cetera. Sweden, of course, remains a point of bitter contention, but you hear little, if anything, about the comparison of the neighboring Austria and Hungary.

Eastern European countries are paid relatively little attention. What about Greece or Southeast Asia, beyond China and South Korea? What about the Muslim world? Fortunately, there are people who watch and analyze this battle of interpretations rather than engage in them, and one of them is my today's guest.

Şener Aktürk is an associate professor of political science at Koç University in Istanbul. He teaches and publishes on comparative politics with a focus on questions of ethnicity, religion, and nationalism. His publications include his book, Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey, which came out from the Cambridge University Press and received the Joseph Rothschild book prize.

Most recently, he published "Comparative Politics of Exclusion in Europe and the Americas" in the journal Comparative Politics. His recent article "After the Deluge: Comparative Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic" was recently published by the TRT World Research Center in Istanbul, of which Şener is a Senior Fellow. Hello Şener.

Şener: [00:05:04] Hello. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Maria: [00:05:07] Thank you. So, my first question is, what drove you to look into what you describe a battle of interpretations? What appeared intriguing to you?

Şener: [00:05:17] Any global exogenous shock provides an opportunity for a political scientist to test our hypotheses, assumptions about state capacity, society's preparedness in the face of these kinds of crises. But more importantly, I think it's the pattern that emerged quite soon after we started observing the pandemic that defies any easy categorization, and which is a reversal of many other patterns that we have seen in the past when it comes to assessments of relative successes and failures - namely, many Western advanced, industrialized democratic polities not doing as well, and many intriguing cases of success elsewhere. I mean success, of course, in a relative sense, in limiting the harmful effects of the pandemic elsewhere in Eastern Europe, in East Asia in particular and elsewhere. That was very intriguing of course, and motivated me to write about this.

Maria: [00:06:20] Yeah, I think we'll get to more concrete examples later in our conversation, but there have been pandemics before. But there never has been a near-global lockdown. And other measures that we see taken by other countries, by many countries these days also appear quite unprecedented.

I've just read a new book about the Paris Conference where leaders discuss the postwar arrangement of Europe after World War I, and I was struck by not a single mention of the Spanish Flu that was raging in the world with millions dying. And meanwhile, Western leaders spend weeks and months in negotiations, travel back and forth, meet face to face with all kinds of people, and of course, all that with no masks or gloves. What makes this pandemic so special?

Şener: [00:07:12] Yes, there have been many pandemics in history and much deadlier ones, as you have noted, but this is the first one that received 7 days/24 hours news coverage around the world synchronously. So, in that sense, that's really the novelty of it.

Not only the Spanish flu, but even after that, the 1968-69 flu that originated in Hong Kong and that also led to many fatalities in the United States is another example. None of these received the kind of publicity and global news coverage that coronavirus pandemic has received.

In that sense, I mean, to compare this, in another field, in the field of military history - I think Coronavirus is to the history of pandemics what the Gulf War, the First Gulf War was to the history of military conflict. As you might remember, the First Gulf War conflict was the one that was covered in the media synchronously around the world through CNN and other news outlets, and that has had a major effect on how states and societies approach conflict.

So, I think it is really the media coverage strikes as a major novelty first but, of course, it's early to talk about what kind of transformations the pandemic might cause, but what it did already show is maybe to shed some light on major global transformations that have already occurred. For example, a renewed focus on the rise of China and the importance of China as a political, economic, military actor. But also, in the case of this pandemic as the global epicenter - original epicenter - the pandemic. So, so far, I would say both the global media coverage and also exposing some global transformations that have already occurred. These are some of the novelties of the current pandemic.

Maria: [00:09:05] Yeah, indeed, we will talk about China maybe a little bit later in this conversation, but I wanted to get back to interpretations and theories that, of course, abound these days - interpretations as to what is conducive to better coping with this pandemic. What about, for instance, the political regime factor, democracy versus authoritarianism? There seems to be no consensus actually, whether democracy or authoritarianism is conducive to better coping with this pandemic.

Şener: [00:09:36] This was probably the first variation that many analysts reached for, because Amartya Sen the famous Nobel Laureate in economics has an equally famous thesis that you've watched in numerous talks and publications, where he states that India, a country that faced many famines in its history, did not face a famine since becoming a democratic polity - which Amartya Sen interpreted as a sign that democracies are far better in fighting against epidemics, and by extension also other, you know, natural disasters and the like because of their free media and responsive government, among other features. In the face of the virus pandemic, many observers immediately reached for Sen’s thesis in claiming that, as a rule, democracies perform better than non-democracies.

But the patterns so far do not confirm this claim. They also do not disconfirm, so it's not possible to say that democracies or autocracies are performing better because the opposite claim has also been made, especially by proponents of authoritarianism. Basically, that the Chinese model, or this authoritarian model, is better in fighting the pandemic. That's also, I don't think, the authoritarianism thesis is also not confirmed by the current patterns of the pandemic.

But, the more popular democratic advantage thesis certainly is not confirmed, because when we think of democracy, we think of the oldest and the most consolidated democracies. The first that comes to mind is United Kingdom, followed by the United States, two of the oldest modern democracies, and then perhaps France and a few others. And these two, three, have been very hard hit by the pandemic, and they do not appear as cases of success, if anything, the opposite.

And when we move further down in Western Europe to countries that democratized but became consolidated democracies later post-war democracies of Italy and Spain and Portugal, Italy and Spain in particular, not so much Portugal, and even Germany, they aren’t stellar success cases, to say the least. Only Germany seems to be doing much better than all the other cases that I mentioned so far, but even Germany wouldn't be a global outlier in terms of its success, I think, because we have, quite a few countries that have done much better than Germany in terms of per population fatalities, and also infection rates, and also infection per population.

Maria: [00:12:15] Right. India, very, very intriguing. So, if not the political regime then well maybe something else, maybe a state capacity. In your article you quote Huntington as saying that what matters is not the form of government, but the degree of government. Can you please elaborate on that?

Şener: [00:12:34] Yes. I mean, we need to look at state capacity, which is what Huntington meant in his famous book where I took this quote, but, even when we turn to state capacity, there are different ways in which state capacity can be measured. Which aspect of state capacity, is at the national integration of communications? The communication between the center and the periphery, of the local and the national law, the federal government and agencies? Is it the coordination of national institutions? And of course, what comes to everyone's mind is the healthcare infrastructure, how deep and established it is.

And here, for example, formerly communist states with the totalitarian legacy or heritage, have also inherited a healthcare infrastructure that is quite comprehensive in many cases. And in cases where that has been renovated or kept intact, that proves to be an asset. And in that sense, you know, many of these formerly communist Eastern European/Eurasian states do resemble Western European states in their degree of government, if not form of government. I mean, some of them also resemble Western States in their form of government because they've become democracies since 1990. Many of them, perhaps most of them, not in the former Soviet space at least, but still in terms of their degree of government, in terms of their previous histories and infrastructures of fighting the pandemic, battles against previous pandemics under communism, these are assets.

Another one, of course, war metaphor is used a lot. It has been used throughout modern history in battling pandemics, it's a war against, you know, a war against the Spanish flu war against malaria, war against the you name whichever pandemic we are talking about in that particular historical juncture.

But this war metaphor also brings to mind the mobilizational capacity of society, independent of state action. And I think that's something else. And we'll probably talk about state policies later on during this conversation, but a societal mobilizational capacity and preparedness, I think needs to be treated as a separate category, related to but ultimately independent from what state does.

Maria: [00:14:56] Indeed. I think Eastern European countries have been paid very little attention during this pandemic. Distandardly so, because the focus has been so strong on Western nations. However, if we bring them into the picture, and maybe also other parts of the world, how would interpretations change, do you think? You mentioned in your article a culturalist explanation, and you also mentioned Vietnam. I think very little is written about Vietnam these days, so what about this culturalist explanation and especially the example of Vietnam?

Şener: [00:15:30] Vietnam is a particularly intriguing case, the true outlier in this pandemic, because for a country of its size, 95 million people, it has only had several hundred infections and more importantly, no fatalities. It implemented drastic lockdown measures as soon as the first couple of infections were diagnosed, it limited the total number of cases to a couple hundred, as I said, in a nation of 95 million people, and most impressively, completed this ordeal with no fatalities. To my knowledge, it is the only country of this scale, this demographic scale with the population in excess of 50, 60, 70 million with no fatalities.

Now, are its East Asian values or is it state capacity? Is it the Vietnamese communist party's deep mistrust of the Chinese communist party, as it has been suggested in one of the commentaries in the media? Or is it some kind of social mobilizational capacity, which may or may not be interpreted as a culturalist explanation in the sense that, what I mean by social mobilizational capacity is the disaster preparedness of society - a society that has suffered previous pandemics, a society that has suffered major instances of total war, a society that understands, perceives the threat that emanates from pandemic and acts accordingly.

I mean, here I would refer to the works in the Weberian tradition, about disciplinary power in society - you know, what, for example, comes to my mind - Phillip Gorski - his Disciplinary Revolution, following the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands. Communities watching out, self-monitoring, taking care of each other. This kind of, public mindedness, collective, eh, not necessarily a collectivist, but at least a collective spirit and responsibility and discipline.

I think this is also a likely, or at least potentially a plausible explanation for the Vietnamese success, but so is South Korea. I mean South Korea - also a country of 50 plus million people. Both countries, both Vietnam and South Korea are in the close proximity of China - Vietnam, directly bordering China. South Korea in close proximity, not directly bordering.

So, they are very near the global epicenter of the pandemic, and yet also in South Korea, the fatalities have been in the low hundreds. And when you look at the population size, it's less than 1 in 100,000, which by comparison is 10 times more successful than Germany, which is hailed as a Western, Central European case of success, but South Korea is at least 10 times more successful. Actually, it's even more than 10 times, based on the front metrics. And Vietnam, as I said, with a zero case of fatality, likewise.

But when we turn to Europe too, we have cases that are very difficult to explain. Greece or Czechia, I mean, both countries, major destinations of tourism and internationalization. International flows of people was a major mechanism through which the virus spread. Prague is one of the most visited cities in the world and also obviously in Europe. Greece suffered a major economic crisis, meltdown. It is a relatively old population, a high rate of smoking, a Mediterranean culture where the elderly and the young may, also, in many cases, co-habit the same spaces.

All of these factors should have made this society also particularly vulnerable, but when we look at the rate of both infections and fatalities, it's much, much lower than, again, let's say Germany. So, Greece, Czechia, South Korea, Vietnam, all stood out as outliers, in a positive way.

I mean, maybe again, in the case of Greece too, perhaps it's disaster preparedness. We know that in its recent history, apart from economic crisis and other crisis related to the economic downturn, it has suffered earthquakes and similar disasters. Maybe it's this societal awareness of what a disaster is and being prepared for it that provided an opportunity to respond more effectively in these cases.

All of these are hypotheses, of course, because we are far from having a conclusive data as the pandemic still unfolds.

Maria: [00:20:07] Of course. Yeah, of course. We should always bear this in mind. But once you've turned to those various parts of the world, maybe you'd kindly say a few words about your own country, Turkey. How does Turkey fare?

Şener: [00:20:19] Turkey, also - not as good as, let's say, South Korea or Greece, but in terms of its averages, it has fared better than all the major comparable European countries with 50-plus million populations. As of yesterday, there were 1.6 million tests, that's 2% of the population and a total of 4,000 fatalities, which is about 2.8% of all the cases of infection and about 5 out of 100,000 population-wise. So that puts Turkey a bit ahead of Germany and behind, you know, Greece and South Korea and Czechia in this global spectrum. So, it's relatively less harmed, and I think both the early lockdown measures - universities and other institutions of education have been in recess since March 13, so we have already experienced this for two months and week, more than a week, by now 70 days or so.

So, this recess began at a time in March 13 when there was not a single confirmed fatality. So only about a day or two after the first confirmed infection. So, in that sense, there's a parallel with several other cases of success really early recess.

And I mean, as I said, it's a moderately good kind of handling, the lower fatalities and lower infection rates also exist. One particular vulnerability, which of course it shares with Greece and many other countries in this neighborhood was bordering Iran on the one side and being quite proximate to Italy on the other side, East and West. And it has motivated, I mean, the early, again, if we talk about frenzy of interpretation... Early in the pandemic, the relative success of Turkey provoked or motivated several waves of interpretation, which is also telling. In the very first wave, there was even, a racial interpretation by some instant celebrities that disappeared quite soon thereafter, who claimed that there is something about the Turkic genes kept Turkey and Central Asia and the yellow race in general, relatively immune from the virus. Of course, that went down very quickly. And these, you know, instant celebrities, disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

And then there was another wave of interpretation, which still to a certain extent exists, and I covered this in my paper under the title of cultural explanations, the Confucian, Islamic and Scandinavian lifestyles. Does any of them protect against the virus? And in Turkey, of course, the Islamic hygiene emphasis was quite popular. There were all these statistics shared about the prevalence of washing hands and using water-based hygiene in traditionally, you know, Muslim heritage societies like Turkey, protecting Turkey.

But, soon thereafter, the interpretation really moved to the investment or over-investment in the health infrastructure. You know, Turkey having more intensive care units per capita than the overwhelming majority of European countries and neighbors. And that, of course, mattered a lot. The emergency rooms were not overwhelmed for the most part.

And right now, the peak has passed. It has been almost a month since the peak of what infections and fatalities have passed. So, the investments in health infrastructure kind of came to the fore. But it's the network - I mean, what I observe, both in Turkey, but also in these more successful cases around the world is very networked societies that can be hypervigilant in overreacting.

And many positive features of many other political systems, for example, federal structure, probably is a disadvantage in this pandemic situation, because if you pass certain measures in, you know, New Jersey about, you can't implement them in the neighboring state. If you pass them in, Moscow, but you can't implement them in Dagestan and so on and so forth, this kind of - I am in general quite positive about a federal system in terms of decentralization of power, but in a situation of pandemic, especially if there is not good hierarchical integration and kind of simultaneous decision-making, a federal system might actually become a disadvantage. These are some of my thoughts on this situation.

Maria: [00:24:46] Yeah, indeed, we are familiar with the flaws in this case of a federative arrangement, even if in Russia, the federative arrangement is mostly on paper, not in reality. However, the difference between different regions of Russia is really quite striking.

Your article is titled "After the Deluge" and you hear these days, this phrase, the world will never be the same. This is another, I think, favorite genre these days. Just how the world will never be the same. I would like you to focus on just one thing the future of nursing homes.

Of course, as we all know now, nursing homes that have been an inherent part of social care in many Western, probably most Western countries, are now in deep, deep trouble and they seem to have suffered the most during the pandemic. Do you think that, of course, all we can do is hypothesize, that we may see Western countries change the way they actually care for their elderly?

Şener: [00:25:47] This is one of the major variations as well, and it does, I think, as the pandemic unfolds, it might become one of the more lasting impressions, because the real human toll of the pandemic, especially in the United Kingdom and United States, as we increasingly see is in the nursing homes.

In fact, one of the ways of looking at the center ordeal is also the cross-national variation in social attitudes and state policies toward the elderly. in some countries s, and I live in one where it is, or at least used to be, completely anathema to voice any opinion about the elderly that can be interpreted as dismissive or disrespectful, and the elderly are situated as those most in need of protection by the society and the state in the moral economy of that polity.

And this, obviously, has cultural and or religious and other underpinning in different parts of the world. And then there are some other cultures and societies where this is not as much the case. And this is more apparent when you look at it comparatively, and the gap between them may be stark, especially in this situation.

And this variation may, and I already observed it to a certain extent, fuel some anti-Westernism or Occidentalism, if you can call it that, to hear about abandoned nursing homes with huge numbers of fatalities in Western countries or the rerouting as we now read more and more critical material, how both in the UK and the US , nursing homes w were encouraged, if not forced, to admit those with outer limits, you know, coronavirus positive. So, this is going to come under more and more criticism, I think, as the pandemic unfolds.

But more importantly, healthcare. I mean, here we still do have variation around the world, and it brings to my mind Michael Walzer's, one of his claims in spheres of justice, that now in a modern secular society, longevity is the most important good, so sooner or later, healthcare should be considered the equivalent of what the, you know, religious services and parish care was in medieval Europe. So, it must be universal and accessible and locally available for every citizen human being.

I think a pandemic like this is an exogenous shock that should under normal circumstances, motivate a more, kind of sustained, demand for universal free healthcare around the world. But we'll see. We'll see whether that happens.

There are also other transformations that we might expect, like presidential dispersion. I mean, this is one of the cases where, clearly countries that have dispersed settlement like Sweden, to a certain extent Russia, Iceland and so on and so forth, they have an advantage. And this shows in the statistics. Belgium is perhaps the hardest-hit country in Western Europe, in terms of per population fatalities, and it's not a coincidence that Belgium is one of the most densely populated countries in all of Europe.

New York City, Moscow, and Istanbul versus the rest of the country, I mean, Istanbul alone, according to some reports, accounts for 60% of all infections in the country. And I have heard not as dramatic, but, similarly asymmetric kind of percentages for Moscow and New York city versus the rest of United States and the Russian Federation. So, residential patterns will be impacted probably in future, urban planning and so on and so forth.

Maria: [00:29:16] Yes, indeed. Yeah. And what you mentioned last, indeed the number of infections in Moscow is about 50% of those nationally. And the number of deaths in Moscow is even higher than that.

Well, of course, there are tons of different aspects we may talk about, apparently you plan to continue your research, and your recent article "After the Deluge" is just the first step.

Şener: [00:29:39] Yes, I do plan to expand it to a comparative study of primarily post-communist, Eastern European and Eurasia states, plus some of their immediate neighbors, such as, you know, Finland, Greece, Turkey, maybe, neighboring the post-communist Eastern European Eurasian space. Because this provides, again, a perfect kind of opportunity to test what we thought we knew about, you know, political regime types, state capacities, political culture, religious traditions, the impacts of previous legacies of healthcare infrastructure, pandemics, and so on and so forth.

Also, geographically, countries that are immediate neighbors of China or Iran versus post-communist countries that are truly removed from any major center of the pandemic, such as Belarus or Lithuania, that do not immediately enable any of these.

So, there are many kinds of pairs of countries that one can look at to see what worked and what did not work several months down the line, because that's also important, to emphasize both in the case of - yes, Russia is the biggest post-communist this country in this group, but also many other countries that came late into this pandemic cycle, and we may not have seen the peak in many of them. Again, Belarus could be in this category, an extremely low infection and fatality rate. For now, it seems like an outlier success. But in the case, as in the case of several other countries, we might need several months at least to see the end of the first cycle.

And the other important question is how far the States will go. Which States will take the more, I call them more utopian route of going all the way until there is no more single new infection versus other states that will basically start opening up? Many of them already did, once they feel like they reached a stage where the number of fatalities and infections is manageably low. That's another major political decision that different countries around the world very soon.

Maria: [00:31:46] Yes. And I wish we would talk again when you've learned more about these varieties of resilience in the post-communist world and beyond. but unfortunately, now we have to wrap up and thank you very much for this conversation. Şener

Şener: [00:32:01] Thank you very much, Masha, for inviting me.