It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Research — and there is a lot — had confirmed the superiority of democratic systems in responding to catastrophes and crises. Yet as the COVID-19 outbreak spread, many, if not most, of those democracies fumbled the moment and autocratic regimes seemed better able to contain and roll back the pandemic. That revisionist assessment leads to dangerous conclusions; fortunately, it aligns only superficially with events of the last year. A more critical look reveals very different lessons, some of which may be just as troubling, however.
Economist Amartya Sen first argued that the impacts of natural-disaster catastrophes are the product of specific political conditions, namely, an absence of democracy. Freedom of speech and independent media allow information to circulate better in a democracy; voters use that information to hold their government accountable for its actions, ensuring a better response.
Initial reports about the COVID-19 outbreak confirmed half the thesis: The coverup of events in Wuhan — including the silencing of doctors who feared that a new disease was emerging — allowed the coronavirus to spread and the insulation of government from public pressure allowed local officials to ignore or downplay the unfolding disaster. Those initial missteps were critical. One study estimated that if Beijing has acted three weeks sooner, a quick response by China could have cut the incidence of the disease by 95 percent and prevented the pandemic. Still, China was ultimately successful in containing the disease, undercutting the argument that authoritarian systems would fail such tests.
Far more damaging to the Sen thesis has been the inability of Western democracies to tackle the pandemic. That record is too well known (and too depressing; it’s a new year) to revisit but the list of failures is long and indiscriminate. Experts and scholars now concede that “regime type” — authoritarian or democratic — is not the key variable.
Some of the governments that responded best to the pandemic are in East Asia. Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace credits Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan as competing for the “gold standard” of the best response in the early stages of the outbreak. (They are, respectively, a liberal, nondemocratic regime, an illiberal dominant-party state and a liberal democracy; so much for the explanatory power of “regime type.”)
Kleinfeld identified three factors that helped them succeed. The first was learning from the first SARS outbreak in 2003, namely, moving quickly to develop tests and trace reports of infection, and then isolating individuals with the virus. The second was political legitimacy, which meant that government decisions were respected and followed by the public. The third was state capacity, or the ability to intervene competently in a range of areas, from communication to the provision of health care to the manufacturing of needed supplies such as personal protective equipment and vaccines. Advanced Western democracies were supposed to excel at this last factor. In fact, their performance was appalling: Messaging was incoherent and often wrong, health care systems were strained and critical equipment was invariably in short supply.
In an early paper that has become the starting point for almost every analysis of this question, Sofia Fenner, an assistant professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, concluded that state capacity is the key. It’s somewhat obvious: “High state capacity gives rulers more tools to confront all crises, including epidemiological ones.” But, she cautioned, leadership matters. As the U.S. has learned, tools are useless if the executive refuses to take the problem seriously. Fenner also noted that federalism and the decentralization of power can undercut executive authority, which is often cited in the U.S. case, but it also applies to Japan where considerable power is in the hands of prefectural governors. Fenner also pointed to experience with SARS and avian flu outbreaks that improved government responses.
Critical to success in dealing with crises is trust. When citizens trust their government, information is accepted and acted upon. Masks are worn and vaccines taken when trust is high. Directives, even difficult ones, are respected. Restricting business hours and getting people to stay is home is only possible with trust. In the absence of trust, the only option is coercion, which risks undermining government legitimacy.
Sadly, trust is a precious commodity these days. Edelman, the public relations consultancy, produces an annual Trust Barometer on the state of trust around the world. The 2020 edition — published before the outbreak — explains government responses to COVID-19. For example, China enjoys the highest levels of trust of any country (as measured by overall trust in government, business, media and nongovernmental organizations) among the general population with a score of 82, the informed public at 90 and mass population at 77. The U.S. is well below, with scores of 47, 53 and 45, respectively; Japan’s numbers are 42, 53 and 42. The mean is 54, 65 and 51. In a COVID-19 update, an Edelman survey of 10 countries found that only 48% trusted their governments as sources of information about the virus.
It is tempting to credit the coercive power of authoritarian governments for their success in dealing with COVID-19, but trust is a more persuasive explanation. Testing, tracing, lockdowns and vaccinations require trust to succeed: Coercion has limits and cannot explain the success of Singapore or South Korea, ranked sixth and tenth, respectively, in the Edelman charts. More revealing are low levels of trust in the U.S. and several European countries, which helps explain their appalling performances.
This is not an abstract discussion. Apart from obvious self-interest — life-or-death decisions tend to focus attention — there is a belief that the future of global politics could tilt on the COVID-19 response. Beijing’s seeming success and Washington’s dismal performance anticipate an evolving balance of power, or as Lawrence Summers, former U.S. secretary of the Treasury, warned, this “may well be a hinge in history.”
Political economist Dan Drezner isn’t so sure. After looking hard at U.S. military and economic capabilities, he concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic is “unlikely to have a transformative effect on the distribution of power.” Claims that the pandemic is shifting global interests, a result of economic decoupling, are also exaggerated. Ultimately, “the pandemic’s lasting effects may be minimal.”
I like Drezner’s conclusions, but I worry about China’s efforts to shape perceptions of the merits of political models. Beijing touts the superiority of autocratic governance and its appeal is growing not only for wannabe dictators but even publics that envy China’s economic record. Claims that China is the first major economy to resume growth after the outbreak burnishes that image.
The readiness to valorize authoritarian responses isn’t restricted to developing countries. The belief that it takes a strongman or strong hand to conquer this virus can take root in democracies too. Last summer, 500 political and civil leaders, Nobel laureates and pro-democracy institutions around the world published “A call to defend democracy,” which warned that “even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance without regard to legal constraints, parliamentary oversight or time frames for the restoration of constitutional order.”
Authoritarians want us to believe that there is a trade-off between an effective COVID-19 response and human rights. (They make the same claim about economic performance.) But the evidence suggests that while the regime type explanation is too neat, the dichotomy between success and freedom is fake as well. Taiwan has done an exceptional job battling the infection and Freedom House cites that record as proof that “You don’t need dictatorships to fight COVID-19.” We mustn’t be seduced by the authoritarian temptation. Defeating COVID-19 will take a collective effort, one that demands leadership and individual responsibility.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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