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Op-Ed: Why democracies do better at surviving pandemics

German Chancelllor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at a news conference about the coronavirus in Berlin on March 22. German authorities have banned more than two people meeting outside of their homes.
(Associated Press )

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the debate over whether authoritarian states are gaining the upper hand across the world. Although there are plenty of signs that strongmen leaders have used the crisis to try to tighten their grip on power, the coronavirus has revealed the vulnerabilities of autocracies rather than their strength. In contrast, democracies are showing their capacity for innovation and adaptation, as one would expect, and signs of renewal, as one would hope.

At first look, the situation is not positive for democracies. The countries worst-hit by COVID-19 as measured in deaths per capita are mostly democracies, including Britain, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the United States. In most cases, erroneous or slow decision-making proved fatal when combined with stressed health systems and pockets of high social inequality.

These failings do not constitute a good advertisement for the power of democracy. And, being democracies, policy failures are quickly exposed by opposition parties and the media, none more so than in the United States, the world’s standard-bearer of democracy. They belie the relative wealth and supposed sophistication of the Western model.

In contrast, the archetypal authoritarian state, China, where the virus first appeared, seems to have weathered the storm well. The Chinese government was able to deploy the draconian powers of its centralized, unitary decision-making structure to impose a harsh lock-down in Hubei province that halted the spread of the virus across the country, even if the number of deaths in China from the virus is likely to be far higher than official figures.

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Being first in, but having controlled the pandemic, China is now the first to re-emerge economically, with industrial output in April reportedly up 3.9% from a year earlier. Most democracies are preparing for further declines in output in the short-term.

The message being unsubtly propagated by Chinese authorities, and echoed by some commentators in the West, is that consultative, media-obsessed democratic leadership lacks the decisiveness of its authoritarian counterpart at a time of crisis. Democracies are slow and chaotic. Autocracies are fast and coordinated.

But this is misleading. Democracies might be among the worst performers in the COVID-19 crisis, but they are also among the best, especially when they are led not by populist leaders, but by those who can draw on a high level of public trust. This has been the case with Germany, Taiwan, Finland, Norway, New Zealand and South Korea — the first five of which are led by women, whose leadership style tends to be inclusive rather than top-down.

Democracies have also revealed their innate resilience and adaptability. COVID-19 is driving democratic political systems to become more accountable and responsive.

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Centralized systems like that of Britain have had to cede more political control to the regional governments; Taiwan is showing how its commitment to protecting individual democratic rights can be applied successfully to voluntary health surveillance; and Germany has drawn on the strength of its federal governance system. Even the more politically divided democracies, such as the U.S. and Britain, have rapidly rolled out massive macroeconomic stimulus packages with bipartisan support.

At the same time, democracies have shown the power and value of their diverse and independent civil societies, which have the freedom to mobilize to confront a crisis of this sort. Corporations, universities, foundations and nonprofit organizations are cooperating and innovating with local authorities and internationally, whether to deliver medical relief and social support or to secure a vaccine.

In contrast, authoritarian states look brittle. When there is only one, permanent leader — party or individual — failure cannot be admitted, and mistakes must be concealed. This was clearly the dynamic in China, where the Communist Party in Wuhan sought to hide the extent of the virus’s outbreak from December 2019 into early January. Sensing the risk to its reputation, the Chinese leadership has since moved into over-drive to try to control the narrative on the outbreak, creating greater international distrust of China in the process.

Other authoritarian states are faring worse. Russia is now coping with its own full-blown COVID crisis, while Iran has had more than 130,000 confirmed infections and a high death rate. President Putin’s focus on recovering Russia’s position as a great power has been at the expense of socio-economic investment, leaving the country’s health system struggling to manage the crisis. His popularity has fallen to the lowest level since he became president in 2000.

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The Iranian regime’s efforts to underplay the risks of the virus have backfired, leaving it vulnerable to a resumption of the violent popular protests that rocked the country following the government’s cover-up of its downing of a Ukrainian airliner on Jan. 8.

The fact is, authoritarian leaders can cope relatively well with geopolitical instability and opportunity, as Russia and Iran have demonstrated in the Middle East. Similarly, they can launch large-scale investment projects with geo-economic goals, as China has with its Belt and Road Initiative, with little concern about their long-term sustainability.

But in the face of an amorphous, cross-border virus that cannot be deterred, coerced or denied, authoritarian leadership reveals the shallowness of its power, as well as the bluff and bluster of its imitators, from Turkey to Brazil. By suppressing the power of civil society and independent media, these governments only hear bad news late and must then rely on rigid bureaucracies to deliver complex responses.

It is quite possible that the coronavirus pandemic will represent the high-water mark for the appeal of the authoritarian model and of its two standard-bearers, China and Russia. In contrast, we are reminded of the relevance of Winston Churchill’s now well-worn aphorism in 1947 that, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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Robin Niblett is the chief executive of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Leslie Vinjamuri is its U.S. and Americas program director.


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