The Pandemic’s Toll on Federalism
The coronavirus has exposed the uneven nature of federal systems around the world.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a deadly toll on the world’s population. However, the pandemic has also seen another, collateral, victim. Various forms of federations, where a central executive should provide an equal safety and health umbrella over all of the constituent parts of the federal entity, have seen the centers shirk their responsibilities and either failed to act for the nation as a whole or played favorites with certain member constituencies. Two of the most egregious failures of federal structures during the pandemic have been two countries led by megalomaniac far-right conspiracy-believing presidents, namely, the United States and Brazil.
It is no surprise that in the midst of the pandemic, U.S. president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro were partying at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago billionaire’s club in Palm Beach, Florida. What neither they nor the staffs realized is that Mar-a-Lago was on the verge of becoming a coronavirus hot zone. Several members of Bolsonaro’s delegation, including his press secretary, were diagnosed as COVID-10 positive. The deadly virus also infected one of Trump’s guests, the Republican mayor of Miami, Florida, Francis Suarez, had also tested positive. The U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Palm Beach resident and fashion executive Lana Marks, may have infected the staff of the U.S. embassy in Pretoria and a visiting U.S. naval vessel in South Africa after having had close contact with a coronavirus positive individual at Mar-a-Lago.
Bolsonaro and Trump spent most of their time together in Mar-a-Lago doubting the veracity of scientific and news reports on the contagiousness of the virus and its rapid global spread. It was this lackadaisical attitude that resulted in states in their respective federal republics deciding the leadership at the top of their respective nations was so wanting, they decided to take resolute actions on their own. States join a federation because they decide that the central government can provide for common needs like national security, foreign affairs, monetary policy, finances, and other functions, thus freeing the states to be concerned with more immediate issues like education, public health, social welfare, local government, and other areas.
Trump’s casting off federal concerns for hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both U.S. territories, in the wake of two devastating storms in 2017 should have been a wakeup call to the states that Trump’s brand of libertarian cronyism would have a future negative impact on the states. Trump’s ineptness became a nightmarish reality as the coronavirus swept from Asia initially into the states of Washington, California, and New York. Trump resorted to taunting the Democratic governors of the three states with childish names as they were left to deal with the virus without any clear signs of support from the Republican White House and U.S. Senate.
The federal system of the United States began to fray at the seams as California met the virus threat by adopting its own unique policies that saw lock downs first in the San Francisco Bay area followed by the entire state. Washington’s governor had previously locked down his state and, soon, New York state followed suit.
Without any clear leadership from the Trump White House, the makings of a new regional political entity coordinating its quarantine and other health policies began to take shape in the northeastern United States. The governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, all Democrats, created their own ad hoc alliance to establish common policy on quarantines, travel, business closures, as well as shared resources in combating the coronavirus. It has been the case that in time of war and other catastrophic events, new nation-states have been born out of necessity. Thusly, New York governor Andrew Cuomo became the de facto leader of this new political alliance of states, which can be called “Midatlantica” for purposes of brevity. Cuomo, realizing that the White House was incapable of acting responsibly, said, “We are literally scouring the globe looking for medical supplies,” a foreign policy action usually carried out by central governments. Previously, California, Oregon, and Washington had coordinated their responses to Trump policies, including environmental decisions, that the three Democratic state governors felt were harmful to their states.
On March 22, Trump lashed out at the complaining governors in a tweet: “JB Pritzker, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News CNN and Concast MSDNC [sic] (which is Comcast MS-NBC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings.” The die was cast, the federal republic of the United States was on life support, thanks to the dithering incompetence of the Trump administration. As Americans began dying in large numbers, Trump, like Roman emperor Nero with his lye as Rome burned, tweeted.
As the coronavirus began making a further impact on the United States, Hawaii announced restrictions on travel to the formerly independent Polynesian kingdom by non-residents of the island chain. Arriving visitors were ordered to quarantine in their hotels for 14 days, which effectively stemmed the flow of tourist traffic to a trickle. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis — a pro-Trump sycophant — decided to delay taking concrete action to deal with the virus’s spread. That resulted in the Florida Keys, known socio-economically as the “Conch Republic,” to close off their islands to non-residents, except for certain limited reasons. As Florida hospitals began to feel the stress of COVID-19 patients in their emergency rooms and intensive care units, DeSantis decided it was the right time to present Florida Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva with a baseball bat with the currently insensitive inscription, “Slayer of the healthcare industrial complex.”
On March 11, DeSantis requested the federal government to provide Florida with personal protection equipment for the state’s medical workers. Trump provided all the material that was requested. Other states, including those of the emergent region of Midatlantica, Illinois, and the West Coast, received only a minute portion of requested supplies and equipment, another dagger into the heart of the U.S. federal system. The “Miami Herald” reported that DeSantis’s televised comments on the pandemic as a “rambling, incoherent monologue that went on for too long.” The same holds true for Trump’s press briefings.
In addition to the states, the officially sovereign tribal nations of the U.S. also stood officially ignored by Trump, who has a history of racial animosity toward the First Americans. By shutting down business and other activities on their territories, tribal entities like the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the Tanana Inuit Nation in Alaska, and the Oglala Sioux Nation in South Dakota were telling outsiders to stay away from their lands. Without federal support, the tribal nations emphasized the same strategies of self-help being demonstrated by Midatlantica, the Pacific coast states, and others.
Taking his cue from his friend Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro launched into an attack on Brazilian state governors for taking proactive measures in the wake of inaction from Bolsonaro’s administration. Bolsonaro, who referred to the coronavirus as a “fantasy,” derided Sao Paulo state Governor João Doria for effectively shutting down his state and sealing it off from the rest of Brazil. Doria shot back at Bolsonaro, saying, “We’re doing what he’s not doing. And when he does do it, he does it wrong.” The comment echoed many made by U.S. governors about Trump. Bolsonaro decided to engage in a federalism battle with Rio de Janeiro’s Governor Wilson Witzel for the governor’s decision to shut down Rio’s international airport to foreign traffic. Bolsonaro insisted Witzel lacked such power. Brasilia Federal District Governor Ibaneis Rocha asked China for medical help after Bolsonaro and his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, copied Trump in accusing China of causing the coronavirus. It will be no great shock if the “Federative Republic of Brazil” survives the coronavirus in its present form.
The “laissez-faire” pandemic responses of Trump, DeSantis, and Bolsonaro have been matched by their ideological doppelgangers in Britain and Australia, Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, respectively. Johnson’s incompetence was magnified by adopting a ridiculous notion of “herd immunity” that counters the accepted medical practice of quarantine to avoid infecting populations. Herd immunity posits that communities can protect themselves from a disease if they take care of themselves. When Johnson’s peculiar adviser, Dominic Cummings, convinced Johnson of relying on the herd immunity concept, the coronavirus began spreading uncontrolled throughout the United Kingdom.
Parts of the UK, like the United States, realized that Johnson’s policy of Tory libertarianism was a threat to them and their constituents. Local authorities asked travelers to avoid visiting their locales. These included the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Cornwall Council, the Anglesey Council, the Isle of Wight Council, the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), the Highland Council of Scotland, and other local authorities asked visitors and non-permanent residents seeking to relocate to holiday properties to stay away. Without an order from Johnson, however, these remote locations with minimum medical services, were left vulnerable. Across the UK, people saw the results of Johnson’s “herd immunity” codswallop in action as local communities were forced to wall themselves off from the outside, with no guarantee of national government support.
In Australia, the Christian fundamentalist “end times” nonsense of Morrison resulted in states taking their own actions. The federal government in Canberra was just as incompetent as it was during recent devastating wildfires. Tasmania, the island state, closed itself off from the rest of Australia, as did Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island, as well as the Torres Strait Islands and Cape York. Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory took the unprecedented actions of closing their borders to other Australian states. Part of this decision was to protect the extremely susceptible Aborigines from the virus. Australian federalism took a major hit with the pandemic, one that will shape the future of Australian politics.
Other nations having more workable federal systems saw constituent states take matters into their own hands. In Germany, Bavaria and Saarland effectively closed their borders, as did the independent members of the Benelux union, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Calling itself the “Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar,” the island member of the United Republic of Tanzania, banned all visits by non-residents from the Tanganyika mainland. The Tobago House of Assembly placed curbs on travel to Tobago from its sister island of Trinidad. Nevis placed restrictions on travel to the island, including from its sister island, St. Kitts.
The coronavirus has exposed the uneven nature of federal systems around the world. After federations determine that federal executives failed to serve all the members of the federation during the pandemic, there will be a political price to be paid, one that may see some federations disassembling from the spokes.
The United States was founded by statesmen who believed the form of federal government they crafted in Philadelphia would sustain viable nationhood. Presidents James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt sustained the nation during war. Donald Trump all but destroyed the federal system by his criminally negligent abrogation of responsibility for and stewardship over the federal republic during the most existential threat to the United States since World War II. His name and his administration will live on only in infamy.