The novel coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on public health in most countries, but it has caused particular destruction in five of the most populous and powerful democracies in the world: Brazil, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and the United States. These states have five of the highest death tolls and caseloads from COVID-19 of any countries, and all have struggled for any control of the pandemic.

Democracy itself is not the reason for their public health failures. Other democracies, from consolidated and wealthy ones such as Germany and Taiwan to politically shaky and middle-income ones such as Thailand, have developed effective responses that have minimized the virus’s toll.

Some democracies, such as Australia and Canada, have not only produced effectual public health responses but have gone months at a time in parts of their countries without any domestic transmission. Several authoritarian states, such as Vietnam, have adopted policies that curtailed the virus’s spread; other authoritarian states, including Iran and Russia, have failed in managing the pandemic

Instead, the vast social and economic inequalities in these five ethnically and racially diverse countries have made it harder for them to control the pandemic. These states have failed to handle the novel coronavirus in part because they have never addressed their historical internal divides, which have been shown clearly by COVID-19. In addition, illiberal populist leaders in these states who attacked the political system and disdained expertise, including the expertise of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, have hindered the pandemic responses.

Indeed, the pandemic has brutally revealed these states’ inequalities. It also has had two dangerous impacts beyond its public health devastation: In all of these countries, COVID-19 actually has made socioeconomic inequality worse, and has exacerbated democratic regression.

In these five states, caseloads and death tolls of the novel coronavirus are falling hardest on racial, ethnic and sometimes religious minorities, and also on the poor; there is a significant overlap between poorer citizens and minorities. The pandemic seems to be further entrenching economic and social inequalities, and some leaders are passing pandemic-era measures that could further hurt the poor and minority groups — and actually make it harder to ultimately control the virus.

COVID-19 also seems to be sparking democratic backsliding in these countries and in many other parts of the world. As often has happened during other historical emergencies, leaders have taken advantage of the emergency to further corrode democratic norms and institutions — in these five democracies and across the globe.

Indeed, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual index of global democracy, released in early February, found that “around the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollbacks of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime,” and that democracy globally was at its weakest point of any time since the index was launched in 2006.

Yet since these five countries are some of the largest in the world, their democratic regression matters even more — they serve as examples for other democratic states and wield considerable regional and global influence. When large, powerful democracies such as India and the United States regress, it badly tarnishes the idea of democracy, makes it easier for autocrats to claim their model of development is better and dilutes any democracy promotion efforts in developing countries.

Still, the novel coronavirus, like many other major crises in human history, has simultaneously caused more inequality and political damage and also has offered the chance for societies to pull together and think big about potential policy reforms. Some politicians are finding, in fact, that promoting major policy reforms could boost their popularity and win support across the political aisle. In some smaller democracies, politicians who have fostered societal unity and equality and embraced major reforms have won electoral victories.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution in these five democracies, policymakers could utilize the emergency of the pandemic to go big and promote structural reforms such as adopting large-scale measures to reverse democratic regression and addressing aspects of socioeconomic inequality.

Because these five countries are among the biggest democracies in the world, any steps they take to address their inequalities and to combat the potential for democratic regression will set examples for states around the world. Yet if they allow COVID-19 to make inequality worse and speed up democratic backsliding, they will set examples for other countries as well.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This contribution is adapted from his latest CFR Discussion Paper, “COVID-19 and its Impact on Inequality and Democracy: A Study of Five Large Democracies.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.