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The Country with the Worst Coronavirus Response in the World Is . . .

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (red), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH/Handout via Reuters)

When writing the thriller a few years ago, I researched a bit on Turkmenistan, perhaps one of the few regimes and countries in the world that can make North Korea look sane, honest, and well-run. It has become quite stylish to complain that the United States government is handling the coronavirus worse than any other country in the world. (As discussed in today’s Morning Jolt, even the East Asian countries that are handling it well with draconian social monitoring are still facing a growing number of cases.)

No, dear readers, the government that is handling the coronavirus worse than any other country in the world is Turkmenistan, and if the reports out of that country are right, it isn’t even close:

The Central Asian country of Turkmenistan claims it has no coronavirus cases. But if you happen to utter the word “coronavirus” while waiting, say, for the bus in the white-marbled capital Ashgabat, there’s a good chance you’ll be arrested.

That’s because the Turkmen government, run since 2006 by the flamboyant dentist-rapper strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has reportedly banned the word, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Citing reports from Chronicles of Turkmenistan, which RSF describes as a rare independent media outlet in this notoriously secretive and restrictive country, the press freedom organization says Berdymukhamedov’s government has forbidden state-controlled media from writing or uttering the word and has ordered its removal from health brochures distributed at hospitals, schools and workplaces.

Those of us outside Turkmenistan can’t do much about the wildly closed, authoritarian, and isolated country, other than be thankful that we don’t live there. But this extreme example demonstrates a point that is all too easily forgotten in discussions about how countries are responding to the threat of the coronavirus. Leaders in free societies can lie; more often they spin, exaggerate, fudge numbers, make rosy projections, and downplay bad news. And thankfully often in free societies, their lies are exposed, and those leaders suffer the consequences of those lies.

In dictatorships and authoritarian countries, those lies are rarely quickly or widely exposed, and those lies can have much more dire consequences. If the coronavirus gets into Turkmenistan — there are few countries that get fewer tourists or international travelers than the Central Asian dictatorship  — the population is toast. They won’t be informed, they won’t be warned, and they won’t be prepared.

Right now, the Chinese government is almost certainly lying about the total number of cases, the total number of deaths, the rate of spread, and almost everything else it is saying about the coronavirus. We should not let them or anyone else convince us that closed societies are somehow better equipped to handle a viral pandemic. Authoritarian countries rarely solve problems; they only replace them with new problems — and when it comes to the worst problems, they usually exacerbate them.

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