What happens when the new coronavirus hits democratic countries

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during a news conference in New Delhi, India, February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago

This analysis was excerpted from the February 26 edition of CNN's Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Sign up here to receive it every weekday morning.

(CNN)Covid-19, meet democracy.

It's one thing to battle an epidemic in an authoritarian state like China, which can isolate an entire epicenter city. It's another in a free nation like Italy, where government curfews and curtailed rights are relics of a tortured history. The world is now finding out what happens when a contagion hits open continental borders and citizens accustomed to free speech and movement.
China bought the rest of the world time with draconian quarantines designed to contain the novel coronavirus. But Western governments will have difficulty containing outbreaks in the same way. And while Beijing can impose news blackouts, Western governments can't, meaning that political pressure can quickly escalate -- and so can financial panic.
    Still, in a transparent system, medical experts can expect reliable data that will help them check an epidemic. And calm counsel from elected politicians can go a long way toward quieting public fear — if the leaders are up to it.
    The sudden proliferation of coronavirus in Italy has triggered a wake-up call in the US. The virus' spread on this side of the Atlantic is near inevitable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday, though only a handful of US cases have been diagnosed so far. The city of San Francisco has already declared a state of emergency.
    Three days ago, when Donald Trump left for India, the virus was something nasty and far away. Air Force One touched down in Washington tonight in a howling political gale over his administration's readiness to fight it -- despite Trump's Panglossian prediction that the coronavirus is just "going to go away."

    'I'm going to be not at all controversial'

    The President can't help himself. At the start of his news conference in New Delhi on Tuesday, Trump warned tongue-in-cheek that he wasn't going to make any news. "It was a fantastic two days. I'm going to be not at all controversial because I don't want to blow the two days ... on one little answer. I'll be very, very conservative on my answers, if you don't mind."
    We weren't falling for that. And for good reason. Here's what the President did say in his very uncontroversial news conference:
    Democrats are "just not good for our country."
    So much for that old tradition of politics stopping at the water's edge.
    Liberal Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves from anything "Trump related."
    On Harvey Weinstein: "Michelle Obama loved him."
    Photos have also surfaced of Trump and the now-jailed sex offender yukking it up at a movie opening.
    "We're very close to a vaccine."
    Most experts think a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is a year or more away.
    On his welcome to India: "Somebody said it was the greatest greeting ever given to any head of state from any country."

    'Everyone can read but there is nothing to read'

    Yesterday, we wrote about Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders' past praise for former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's educational and health programs. Here's a little more on the Cuban perspective, from CNN's Havana correspondent Patrick Oppmann:
    "Supporters of Fidel Castro's revolution say his eight-month literacy campaign helped tens of thousands of Cubans learn to read and write. According to Cuban government statistics nearly 100% of the communist-run island is now literate and access to free education is one of the cornerstones of the Cuban revolution.
      "But government opponents say the 1961 literacy campaign was actually an indoctrination program that eased the way for Castro's complete take-over of Cuba. Plus, while the government has begrudgingly allowed widespread internet access in recent years, all newspapers, and most bookstores and libraries on the island are government-operated and only offer the government's viewpoint.
      "As an old Cuban joke goes, 'Everyone can read but there is nothing to read.'"