March 4, 2020 - 8:52am

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik was at a Jewish Book Week event in King’s Cross this week to talk about his new book ‘A Thousand Small Sanities: the Moral Adventure of Liberalism.’ When the conversation inevitably got to Coronavirus, he suggested that tests like this will reveal the superiority of liberal democracies at handling threats to their people:

For dealing with the world’s big problems, autocracy won’t work for two reasons. Firstly, it will only provoke dissent and secondly, you’ll cut off the necessary feedback that enables you to thrive.

It’s not an accident that the coronavirus has become endemic in Iran before anywhere else because you don’t have the necessary means of social intercourse and social feedback — it is limited and wounded in some way. We can’t survive without the possibility of that kind of feedback. We have to accelerate liberal democratic institutions if we’re going to solve those problems

- Adam Gopnik


He’s certainly right that a global crisis like this is very revealing of how effective different countries, and systems of government, are at the basic task of protecting their population, and that secretive and often incompetent administrations like Iran visibly fall short.

But it remains to be seen how effective liberal democracies are at containing the spread of disease. China — while being slow to act in the beginning — has marshalled its vast centralised power to literally contain entire cities and it seems to be doing the trick, as the rate of new cases within China continues to fall. Health Secretary Matt Hancock may tell us that “all options are on the table” but it is hard imagine the government successfully quarantining Manchester for weeks.

Columnist Clare Foges, who famously has form in admiring strongman dictators, made the opposite case to Gopnik in The Times this week, saying that the liberal individualism of our Western societies makes us selfish and therefore vulnerable:

My fear is that our safety net is the willingness of other people to respect authority whether it suits them or not; to place the common good over their own busy agenda. In the age of entitlement, the age of the individual, the age of anti-establishment populism, this seems a very flimsy safety net indeed
- Clare Foges, The Times

Whether Gopnik or Foges proves to be right, one thing is not in doubt: we will learn a lot about our own society in the coming weeks.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.