MEXICO CITY — Beijing, in 1980, was little more than a town, though with some grand avenues leading to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the city's political heart. Bicycles circulated intermittently. They were the average vehicle used to transport people and a range of goods. The city's neighborhoods, in varying states of deterioration, sprawled outwards from these ceremonial centers.

When I returned, nearly 20 years later, I could not believe the huge changes: a modern city, skyscrapers, ring roads, luxury shops and traffic befitting a mega-city. While in Mexico we were debating economic models, debt and the government's role in development, China had transformed itself. This is what an efficient government does.

In Mexico, politics has been confused with the function of government. While politics determine every nation's priorities, executing those priorities is another matter. In reputable countries, the government is an agent of continuity and stability. Civil servants are permanent, mostly career professionals and bound by codes of conducts and transparency. Politicians, for their part, govern with the support of their people and determine which projects will proceed and which will be shelved. They also determine the criteria for taking decisions. Cities in such reputable countries have professional administrators who report to the elected mayor, as happens in ministries and departments. Only Third World countries restart from scratch every three or six years.

This is the subject of an exceptional new book, The Wake Up Call, which seeks to explain the difference between countries that have successfully confronted the coronavirus pandemic and those still reeling from its arrival. Its premise is that Western countries had an efficient system functioning in ordinary circumstances and responding to critical situations, but that this has become atrophied and lazy. The Western system, it says, has fallen captive to countless personal interests, both internal (political groups or unions) and external (construction firms, service operators and environmentalists).

Singapore, however, has become exemplary for its efficient, technically competent government, which has attained the highest per capita income levels in the world. Many countries, especially in Asia, have followed this model and duly built meritocratic bureaucracies. These have exceptionally trained and remunerated civil servants who work professionally, as shown by the crushing success of states like South Korea, Taiwan and, of course, China. Certainly there are efficient governments elsewhere, like Germany and some Scandinavian countries. These have civil services with a serious attitude, competence and technical abilities — people who can distinguish politics from their responsibilities.

A 2020 protest against President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — Photo: Mariana Bae/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Most of these nations are established democracies, while some are hybrid regimes and others, autocracies. Their similarity is in the quality of their governments. Nothing like a coronavirus to distinguish between those who know what they are doing and the rest!

The virus is a perfect tool for comparison as it does not discriminate and affects countries across the world and their people in the same way. Each nation, however, responds in keeping with its socio-political characteristics.

Infrastructures are another example. Nations with competent governments have motorways, high-speed trains and super-modern airports. Frankfurt, Beijing and Singapore are evident examples. None of these states gets bogged down with the issue of education, like Mexico. Civil servants are continuously learning in these countries and are not browbeaten by incompetent politicians, even if they work strictly in line with priorities those politicians set.

The key point is that a government's efficiency is unrelated to its democratic or autocratic quality. It has to do with its structures, means of organization and compensation.

In contrast with Singapore, the Mexican government was not built to be efficient. It was an instrument for the interests of the political class, which inevitably meant it was an intrinsic apparatus for corruption. In spite of that, for decades after the (1911) revolution, the government assured the country a measure of stability and conditions for its development. All this was lost in the populism of the 1970s and the incomplete (and sometimes inadequate) reforms in the following decades. Instead of rectifying those mistakes, this government appears to be determined to replicate the 70s: with personal decisions taken on the basis of ideology and with purely political objectives.

The timing of this pandemic could not have been more revealing. It has exposed the shortfalls and accumulated deficiencies of our governing system, already magnified in this administration. The government that sought a regime change ended up mired in a pandemic it did not understand (and still does not understand). It has neither the means nor the people needed to emerge from this crisis — never mind other, unresolved issues like crime and the economy. And that's why now is the time for major reforms to create the thing we're so sorely missing: a professional and technically competent government.

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