Mired in Inequality and Laid Low by the Virus, the US Offers Little to Emulate

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 10 July 2020

America today is no longer a source of inspiration to the world, with recent events having exposed the gaping flaws in its democracy. The US system no longer holds the appeal it once did—offering an important lesson to the world that democracy can die.

The main cause seems to lie not in its culture, but in the country’s catastrophic leadership.

The denial and mishandling of the novel coronavirus outbreak by President Donald Trump has revealed him and his administration to be utterly selfish, blind to the people’s welfare. The ugly tradition of white supremacy—both passive and active—remains entrenched in the society despite hundreds of years of resistance by African-Americans. The country’s institutions have been unable to deter its illiberal, racist—but legally elected—president from incapacitating democratic systems and institutions that have been developed gradually over many years. When Trump bothers to engage in diplomacy—such that it is—he does so not for the good of his country, but to advance his own political goal of winning a second term in this year’s election and boosting his business empire—a glaring conflict of interest for a national leader.

In late June, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Donald Trump isn’t responsible for coronavirus. But he is responsible for the disastrous lack of leadership that has led to 122,000 deaths in the US and counting.”

To date, the coronavirus has infected more than 3.2 million Americans and killed more than 135,000. Americans have become international pariahs, unable to travel to Europe. What a disgrace! Americans have no one to blame except their own president and those around him, who have degraded their status as US citizens.

Yet, many in the president’s Republican Party seem eager to deny the seriousness of the coronavirus right along with him. Since the onset of the epidemic in the country, their denial of its existence has given a new, wholly negative, meaning to the concept of “US exceptionalism”. When it comes to containing COVID-19, the US has the worst record in the world and seems determined to maintain it. Health experts are concerned that America will only see infection and death rates climb in the coming months.

Many of Trump’s critics, including many Americans, believe the current situation is a direct result of political considerations by Trump and his people. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in a recent piece: “In any case, the point is that America’s defeat at the hands of the coronavirus didn’t happen because victory was impossible. Nor was it because we as a nation were incapable of responding. No, we lost because Trump and those around him decided that it was in their political interests to let the virus run wild.”

This is beyond a failure of leadership. It means the president and his administration intentionally let their fellow Americans die by letting the virus spread—for political reasons. What a truly terrible state of affairs! What was the point of electing or having Trump as president? (Though, let’s not forget, he lost the popular vote in 2016.)

Myanmar has continued to prove fortunate regarding COVID-19. The views I expressed in my column two months ago largely hold up. It begins: “The world is under attack. Myanmar is no exception, but the situation here could still be described as, “So far, so lucky.”

Now, it seems it’s not the world that is under attack so much as the US. Myanmar’s situation has been kept manageable. The European Union, a huge, diverse area with a bigger population, managed to control the spread of the virus better than the US.

But Myanmar’s success so far is not merely a case of good luck; it also reflects a seriousness on the part of the country’s leadership to handle the coronavirus outbreak—a seriousness that has been totally lacking among leaders like Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who himself recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Bolsonaro, an unabashed Trump admirer who shares his dismissive attitude toward the coronavirus, has joined the US president in endorsing an unproven treatment, hydroxychloroquine, for his citizens, of whom over 1,000 are now dying of the disease every day.

The situation here would be as dire as that of the US if Myanmar were still under the military regime, which had a record of ignoring and neglecting its people in their hour of need, most notoriously in its mishandling of the deadly Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 130,000 people in 2008.

I feel I have some idea of the shame the peoples of America and Brazil must now be feeling over their irrational and anti-scientific leaders; I can still recall the shame and embarrassment I felt at the total lack of reason displayed by the leaders of the military regime here in the past.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (right), US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Yangon in November 2012. / The Irrawaddy

As for Myanmar, as of this morning, six people had died of COVID-19, with 321 people having tested positive, 254 of whom have recovered.

Since April 1, the country’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has periodically used Facebook to connect with the public “to communicate quickly and effectively with the people regarding COVID-19 challenges.” In addition to her occasional messages of warning and encouragement on topics such as the importance of wearing face masks and not letting one’s guard down, over the past three months she has held about 32 videoconferences (about two per week) with a variety of people such as doctors, COVID-19 patients, health workers, businesspeople affected by the virus, government officials, restaurant owners and others, to learn more about what needs to be done on the ground to effectively combat the epidemic.

Many people here have praised her method as being quite effective, not only as a way of informing the public but also of gauging people’s views on how to fight the virus. Her use of Facebook, the dominant social media platform in Myanmar, has been particularly effective.

“Myanmar has done extraordinarily well so far,” Dr. Stephan Paul Jost, the representative of the World Health Organization in Myanmar recently told the Irrawaddy. “The reason for being relatively successful so far is – there are many reasons. One is Myanmar started very early, in fact from Jan. 5 onwards.”

Dr. Jost pointed out that Myanmar had taken a “whole-of-government” approach, and went on to cite examples of how the country has really gone all out to strengthen the public health side and its preparedness for and response to the disease.

But as a poor country, Myanmar is still struggling to achieve victory over the virus. Yesterday, the government issued a statement containing a serious warning to the public to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, avoid crowds and wash their hands to avoid being hit by a second wave of the virus, as has occurred in much of the world.

Returning to the US, another serious problem faced by that country is the racism that is still so deeply rooted in its society.

“I can’t breathe”—the three words whispered by dying African-American George Floyd while a white policeman knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—have come to symbolize the fact that his killing was not simply a vicious and inhumane act of police brutality, but the latest tragic consequence of America’s entrenched racial inequality. The massive protests across the US in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing showed the scale of social inequality in the country.

Unfortunately, the terrible racism that remains widespread in the US has been inflamed under the Trump administration, which has encouraged white supremacists. Beyond Trump’s circle of rich friends and racist supporters, this seems like a nightmarish era for the American people.

In their 2018 book “How Democracies Die”, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write, “Trump’s rise may itself pose a challenge to global democracy. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Obama presidency, US governments maintained a broadly prodemocratic foreign policy.

“Under Donald Trump, the United States appears to be abandoning its role as democracy promoter for the first time since the Cold War. President Trump’s is the least prodemocratic of any US administration since [Richard] Nixon’s.

“America is no longer a democratic model,” they wrote. “A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares that he might not accept election results cannot credibly defend democracy.”

All of which is true.

But the current disappointing state of affairs in America shouldn’t have to be a story of how a democracy can die. I am sure it is not inevitable; rather it will depend totally on the American people. They must show how knowledgeable and liberal-minded they are, topple the present illiberal administration at the upcoming election, and demonstrate to the world once again the robust nature of American democracy.

Like US voters, we in Myanmar will also go to the polls in November to cast ballots and choose a government and national leader. Many Myanmar people are expected to choose a party or leader who will continue to steer the country through its unfinished reform process to genuine democracy, and ensure the country does not fall into the hands of the undemocratic party.

In our country, we used to say under the dreadful and disgraceful military regimes in which people had no right to vote: “People get the government they deserve.”

Like their counterparts in Myanmar, American voters will get a chance in November—exercising their routine electoral right as citizens of an established democracy—to reverse the colossal mistake they made in 2016. I hope they will make a rational choice as they cast their votes and demonstrate both to themselves and the world that they deserve more than the present dreadful and disgraceful administration.

Then, America’s democracy will be as attractive as it once was.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar’s Ruling NLD Must Address Its Achilles’ Heel: Choosing the Wrong People

What Do We Want a Post-Pandemic Myanmar to Look Like?