Pandemics and Authoritarianism

Why some democracies are falling behind in curbing the spread

Mar 22, 2020 | medium post

Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic, countries continue to close borders, implement new travel restrictions, quarantine residents, and lock down cities.

Even the most liberal democracies are restricting individual freedom to protect public health and ensure the livelihoods of its citizens. Italy, whose total number of confirmed deaths doubled in a span of 5 days, was the first democratic nation to close its borders on 60 million people, the most rigorous restrictions on Italian citizens since World War II. “We are out of time,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, referencing little choice in this decision. In March, the United states followed suit as the epicenter of the pandemic shifted West. Though borders are not yet entirely closed — so far, only travel restrictions on European and select Asian countries — stringent restrictions on small businesses, corporations, small gatherings, restaurants and shops have been imposed.

Freedom restrictions by the U.S. and Italy were delayed, and ultimately enacted following panic and fear as the case growth rate and deaths continue to climb. Conte warned Italy’s citizens to abide: “we must not try and be clever.” China on the other hand, had no qualms shutting down the city of Wuhan and later the entire province of Hubei within a month of the inception of the virus. Under the authoritarian regime, citizens are used to abiding by the rules. The efforts paid off so far, resulting in a delayed growth rate of infected persons and more time for other countries to mobilize and enact policies.

Since the onslaught of COVID-19, much has happened around the world, and I am prompted to wonder:

  1. Will countries that are currently ruled by an authoritarian government be better suited to curb the spread of the virus?

  2. Will citizens in historically democratic nations become more tolerant of a centralized government / authoritarian rule following a pandemic?

Wuhan’s empty streets, Credit: The Atlantic

Let’s break it down:

1. Will countries that currently exhibit an authoritarian regime be better suited to curb the spread of the virus?

We will look at responses and results from China, Singapore, Italy, U.S., South Korea, and Taiwan to analyze this topic.

The argument in support of authoritarian regimes is relatively straightforward: curbing the spread of infectious diseases requires government enforcement of stringent quarantine measures and the cooperation of its citizens. In authoritarian regimes, it is more likely for the population to comply with imposed regulations.

*see note below this section for a brief history on why people in China are generally amicable to authority

Looking at China specifically, alongside individual dispositions towards authoritarian acceptance, tightened security and indictments from disobedience are also contributing factors to the population’s general compliance to authoritarian rule. This explains when the Chinese government locked down multiple cities during the coronavirus pandemic, why lawful citizens dutifully retreated to their homes without much physical resistance, and accordingly to primary sources, shaming those without masks. Even though the general public expressed their vast discontent by posting vitriolic comments and mocking memes of the government on social media, many of these posts were deleted at discretion of the State in an effort to maintain order. Freedom of speech is vastly limited, but the government experienced first-hand from the SARS epidemic how rumor and misinformation can trigger panic and dismantle response efforts led by health workers and authorities. In their mind, it was a time for solidarity, not stigma.

However, we must not ignore the issues of suppressing freedom of speech under an authoritarian regime. Journalists are quick to criticize the government for shushing Li Wenliang when he first sounded the alarm during the crucial early days of the virus. Was it wrong of the government to do this? — Yes. Did they act quickly afterwards to alert the World Health Organization? — Yes, a drastic change from its response to SARS. There’s plenty to unpack as to whether authoritarian governments are more likely to mishandle initial response to infectious disease outbreaks, but let’s do that another time. Let’s continue to focus on the control of post-outbreak spread.

From a public health perspective, authoritarian rule looks more optimistic. In contrast to democracies, it can quickly enact policies and bypass layers of bureaucracy to sponsor widespread testing and offer free treatment for infected patients. By focusing all its resources and attention to the virus, China was able to slow the infection rate.

In contrast, when Italy’s prime minister implemented similar lockdown measures in its northern territory, it resulted in chaos as thousands attempted to flee. Italy’s government (democratic by nature) was also slow to implement such restrictions, which led to exponential growth in its infected population. Only as the situation worsened did democratic nations take action to quarantine its citizens, using corporate enforcement and social media to urge them to take the situations seriously. Testing in Italy and the United States have been limited to patients with serious symptoms, and only recently has the government sponsored free testing for the virus. But still, the US is way behind when it comes to testing — 40,000 people total compared to China’s 20,000 a day as of 3/16/20 (statistics are higher today, but this references our previous ignorance of rigorous testing). As democracies fumbled to aid their own citizens and affected countries, Italy relied on China, who immediately offered medical experts, millions of face masks, and thousands of other health supplies.

Singapore, similar to China, acted quickly by closing down its schools, enforcing isolation, and conducting widespread testing. Its residents followed protocols and a forced lockdown was not necessary. With heavy government involvement and the onset of substantial measures early on, including heavy fines, clear messaging, and strict tracking, Singapore was able to reduce the infection rate.

But how do countries like South Korea, a liberal democracy itself, seem to emerge from this crisis as a paragon of successful democracies combatting COVID-19? Though it suffered an initial onslaught, it was able to quickly implement measures to contain the virus, most notably its aggressive approach to testing via a “trace and test” methodology. Normally, it would take 6 months to submit a new virus test for use, but KCDC (Korea Centers for Disease Control) authorized it within a week. Taiwan, similarly a democracy, has been successful in battling coronavirus through a “combination of early response, pervasive screening, contact tracing, comprehensive testing, and the adroit use of technology.” South Korea and Taiwan may not be run by authoritarian governments, but they did adopt strong authoritative policies to combat COVID-19 early on.

Some sources, such as The Economist, argue that non-democracies tend to be better than other forms of government at “containing and treating outbreaks of disease,” and that democracies “appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.” Their analysis, however, looks at historical epidemics and data, during periods in which lack of technological progress and sanitary measures are present. Though they claim to control for geographical location and time period, they don’t present a source for which epidemics are analyzed nor do they control for population (e.g., analysis for China, which had a population of 1 billion in 1980, compared to a country such as Nepal, a country referenced in the study, which had a population of 15 million in the same year). Countries with a larger population require different levels of governance and coordination to maintain order and implement nationwide protocols. Separately, with today’s technology and development, we may also want to control for factors other than geography and income (e.g, indexes for culture, technological progress, historical background, population).

Regardless, from the successful actions by democracies (namely, South Korea and Taiwan), we may start to wonder: perhaps it’s not the style of government that determines who is better suited to curb infection growth, but rather, the society’s culture as well as the efficiency of leadership and the healthcare industry to initiate rapid response. For example, nationwide compliance and understanding is extremely important, which is closely tied to society’s culture. During the case of a national emergency, you don’t see people in East Asia take advantage of school closures and flock to beaches to celebrate spring. Furthermore, one of the most effective ways of curbing the virus is “trace and test”, a rapid method that a handful of East Asian countries have been successful in implementing, which has currently not fully matured in the West, nor has it been prioritized.

Simply look at the disparity in testing per million people among countries:

All in all, in the case of a pandemic, I don’t necessarily believe that authoritarian governments are better suited to curb the spread. Rather, strong central authority, rapid emergency health response, societal compliance to rules, and free circulation of factual information contribute to the success of battling pandemics. For authoritarian regimes, they value order and safety over individual liberties, and hence can enact stringent large-scale policies such as quarantines that are seemingly absurd at first glance to residents in democratic countries. Additionally, they are able to channel all their intellectual, physical and financial resources to battling the virus, offering free testing and treatment as well as forcibly enforcing protocol. This approach may be important for large countries such as China, since the effectiveness of the spread requires everyone’s cooperation, and the larger a country, the harder that is to control.

On the other hand, democracies take into consideration the freedoms and liberties of its citizens and also must bypass bureaucracy, which could stall critical policies from being placed rapidly. Especially with infectious diseases, one day delay can result in an exponential number of people infected. Even though South Korea served as a successful example in containment measures, it was able to do so only through bypassing the normally cumbersome procedural barriers. Therefore, I do not believe authoritarian governments are better than democratic ones when it comes to curbing virus infections within a population, but I do believe it is critical that even liberal democracies leverage authoritative approaches. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all were able to succeed through clear and decisive messaging from authority, unlike U.K. and the U.S., where leadership wavered back and forth on what how seriously to take the the pandemic. If they continue with that approach, the future will look bleak.

*Note: China is plausibly the paragon of modern day authoritarian regimes, alongside Singapore. Understanding the population’s general acceptance of authority will require historical and cultural context, in which I will provide a brief overview. This is a very complex topic that requires further reading, and I am covering only one of many relevant factors. The Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1961 claimed 36 million lives and is arguably the worst catastrophe of modern day Chinese history. Induced by China’s poor governance at the time, millions of people were powerless against authorities and suffered as result. After Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, he launched China’s economic reform program (1978–2013) which focused on poverty reduction, and according to the World Bank, China’s poverty rate declined from 88% in the 1980s to 0.7% in 2015. With vast majority of citizens uneducated and living in rural areas in the 1950s — 1980s, they were detached from city politics. When economic reform rewarded them with a better lifestyle, education, and urban migration, the newly established city-dwellers garnered greater faith in the system. Perhaps it was that period of economic growth and established trust in the government, alongside China’s culture and Confucian values, that contributed to the general population’s abidance towards authority. If you’re interested in why Chinese people like their government, you can learn more here.

2. Will citizens in historically democratic nations become more tolerant of a centralized government / authoritarian rule following a pandemic? There exists few studies that indicate previous pandemics and epidemics (MERS, 2009 H1N1, Ebola) are linked to tolerance of a more centralized government, which I will evaluate based on voter behavior or party identification. In the short term, it is common to see stronger government intervention to ensure public and economic health. Research shows that heightened levels of stress and threat are linked to support of authoritarian behavior. If we look at other panic-inducing situations such as 9/11, we observe that individuals who were directly linked to victims have become more active in politics and exhibit increased trust in government and conservative political attitudes.

Terrorist attacks and pandemics are not congruous, but both are shocks that catalyze economic and policy changes. Still, no conclusion can be drawn on the relationship between pandemics and increase tolerance of a centralized government. However, what we do know is that pandemics have the potential to vastly affect the economy, and the economy, in turn, plays a role in voter behavior. Studies have shown that shifts in the balance of party support over time are related to economic cycles, and Kramer goes further in his research to indicate declining real income reduces the vote for the party of the incumbent president.* Given the current progression of travel bans, business closures, and stock market plunges, it is certain that there will be serious economic implications following the pandemic, which may influence voters’ preferences toward state involvement.

Another scenario I see, and also fear, is the advent of mass surveillance in liberal democracies, where governments exploit the pandemic to justify tracking of individuals (say, after we implement “trace and test”) indefinitely. Though this is more likely to occur in authoritarian regimes, liberal democracies are no exception to this threat. I’d like to be more optimistic about government intentions and assume that if the administration found it necessary to intensify tracking data collection on its citizens, it would only be a temporary measure. And following the vaccine, the government would grant privacy back to its citizens. But how confident are we that anything enacted by the state today under emergency conditions will be revoked afterwards?

Hence, even though there is a lack of evidence on pandemics directly leading to greater tolerance of a centralized government or authoritarian rule, I believe that they can, via indirect economic channels, influence voter attitudes. In the case of COVID-19, the current administration has responded with an economic stimulus package to boost businesses and mitigate an impending economic recession.** The efficacy of the package will then direct the population’s statist attitudes. However, it is also possible that following a pandemic, the government may become more centralized and increase mass surveillance in the nation without the citizens’ knowledge. That, I’m afraid, may be the forthcoming reality.

*Despite economic downturns having political costs, research does not claim any unique specification of individual response patterns. **What the current government has done is not enough. From Trump’s racist attacks on China and the refusal of many Republicans to be serious about the virus early on, the American government administration faces ridicule from the rest of the world. Instead of setting an example and uniting countries together, our ‘leaders’ point fingers and refuse to listen to the objective truth.

The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving daily: advancements in technology and research are continuously being made, and countries are frequently updating their protocols and uniting to find newer and faster ways to test individuals. Although authoritarian governments are not necessarily better when it comes to curbing the spread of the virus, all forms of government need to temporarily become more authoritative to ensure the safety of its citizens and promote rigorous testing and tracking. Governments should be cautious of how they handle the economy during these uncertain times and also of potential exploitation of the situation to enable stronger state surveillance following the pandemic. As citizens, we should also participate in the fight against the virus, supporting those around us and abiding by the rules, as well as being aware and critical of our government’s actions.

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© 2020 by molly liu