Ebola, the Secret Service, Ukraine, Syria and Hong Kong

Ebola, the Secret Service, Ukraine and Syria have something in common:  each in its own way betrays symptoms of institutional failure. The social structures governing behavior have broken down under strain, leading to problems that would not occur at all or would be manageable without extraordinary measures if social norms and the mechanisms that enforce them were performing effectively.

This is obvious in the case of Ebola, which has spread in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia because the health systems there are weak.  As Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official Stephan Monroe put it:

“If we ever needed a reminder that we all live in a connected world, this horrible Ebola outbreak is it,” Monroe said.

That means the U.S. and other countries have a stake in investing in developing countries, whose needs may seem to be far from U.S. domestic priorities.

“We need to build systems to find cases quickly before they spread,” Monroe said. “This means strong health systems throughout the region.”

Easily said. Hard to do. Decent surveillance is one of the reasons Ebola has not spread in Nigeria. Inadequate surveillance systems in West Africa are one of the main reasons the disease is now spreading there. Their inadequacy is a reflection of more general state weakness. Sierra Leone and Liberia suffered decades of war. Guinea suffered decades of coups. The health systems in all three countries are devastated. State weakness has consequences.

We are about to see our own institutions challenged. The first Ebola case has now entered the US, ironically in Texas. Ironically because its governor, Rick Perry, has been a vocal critic of Federal institutions like the CDC that are vital to America’s defenses against infectious disease. But it was a private hospital in his own state that failed to recognize Ebola symptoms in a traveler from Liberia, allowing him to circulate for two days and potentially infect a couple of dozen people. Someone should tell Rick Perry to eat his Fed Up tirade.

One of our most august institutions, the Secret Service, has already failed to meet its challenge:  ensuring that the President is not exposed to danger. It failed to prevent a fence-hopper from entering and exploring the White House. It also allowed a gun-toting felon into an elevator with the President, on his recent visit to CDC. The Secret Service director has resigned, but there is precious little reason to believe that the laxity and incompetence have been fixed. Once your institutions run down that far, it takes real reform, not just a few firings, to fix them.

The Ukraine and Syria crises are also due to failed institutions. Ukraine has been badly governed since it emerged from the Soviet Union 23 years ago. Successive administrations have plundered its institutions, culminating in former President Yanukovych’s lavish palace. There is no merit in Moscow’s claim that Fascists conducted a coup in Ukraine and chased Yanukovych from office. He abandoned his position when confronted with a popular rebellion, one that admittedly was supported by the Ukrainian nationalist right, including some anti-Semites. But Ukrainians of all political perspectives and ethnicities are right to have doubts about the ability of their weak state to protect their security and rights.

That is even more true in Syria, where even his Alawite supporters are now doubting whether Bashar al Asad has their best interests at heart. His looks like a strong state:  it has killed a lot of Syrians and laid waste to a large part of the country. But in doing so he has ensured that the state has little popular support in many parts of the country. The reemergence of polio in Syria is a tell-tale sign of state weakness. A state does not become strong by exerting itself against its own citizens. It becomes strong by giving them good reason to regard its authority as legitimate.

The authorities in Hong Kong have so far avoided Bashar al Asad’s mistakes. They have permitted massive demonstrations in favor of a democratic election to decide the city-state’s future leader in 2017. The demonstrators have also been wise. They have displayed extraordinary non-violent discipline in pursuing their “umbrella” revolution. It looks this morning as if both sides may be prepared to talk. That is a good idea. A crackdown now would be risky not just for the Hong Kong authorities but also for Beijing. There may be no exit apparent, but things could still get much worse for both the demonstrators and the authorities. Even dictatorships like China’s depend on legitimacy.

For those who like their politics visual and don’t object to drones in civilian use:

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