Why federalism hinders effective policies against Covid-19

Our world is facing the same problem, but different governments have reacted with different measures and strategies – and with different levels of success. Hong Kong and South Korea seem to have been the most successful countries in the fight against Covid-19. Both reacted quickly and implemented strict measures such as surveilling the movement of their citizens, quarantine, and consequent social-distancing measures. Additionally, mask-wearing is not new for citizens of Asian countries, mainly due to polluted air.

In Europe, Italy was the first country that was faced with the virus and reacted strictly with a first nationwide lockdown on the 11th of March. Germany and France followed with similar reactions, while Great Britain apparently needed its Prime Minister to experience the virus himself before taking it seriously. Sweden followed a unique strategy and the president of the United States is still highly incapable of dealing with any demanding situation at all.

Less political resistance in centralized systems

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only reveal which leaders are capable of managing a global health crisis. More than nine months since the outbreak and its spread over the whole world, it also showed which political system is the most effective and practical when dealing with a global pandemic:

The more centralized a system, the easier it is to implement (drastic) measures. It was not challenging for the Communist Party in Beijing to control 1.393 billion people in China and regulate their behavior. However, if the autocratic Chinese government were more transparent and liberal, the virus would have been contained much earlier. South Korea, a unitary presidential republic, successfully controlled the coronavirus by surveilling the movements of its citizens and implementing a national mandatory obligation to wear a mask.  Additionally, the government in Seoul supported the economy with grants from the very beginning.

The federal state of Switzerland, on the other hand, was still arguing in mid-October whether customers in a store should wear a mask or not. Of course, there are many more Covid-19 cases in urban Geneva than in rural Appenzell, but a virus does not stop at a border – and especially not within a country. After strict and centralized measures at the beginning of the pandemic, the Swiss government has lost control over the handling because the different cantons felt disempowered in the proud federal country. In Germany, a federal nation as well, the federal lands are pursuing different strategies that have caused uncertainty and political chaos in facing a second wave. In Germany’s neighbor-state, however, the French president Emmanuel Macron decided in October to reimplement a strict curfew and acted single-handedly without any form of political resistance.

Federalism – an imperfect system

While federalism is a fair system for heterogeneous countries in general, it hinders effective policies and force in times of crisis – such as the handling of a global pandemic. Centralized or even autocratic nations can implement a national strategy much faster and much more effectively than federal states due to fewer players and, therefore, less political resistance in the decision-making process. Whether this is democratic or not must be put on hold. Democracy means the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously stated in 1858. This must be accepted, and policymakers must be trusted. Most importantly, in times of crisis!

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