The Virus Comes for Democracy

The New York Times

“Strongmen think they know the cure for Covid-19. Are they right?”


Mr. Schmemann is a member of the editorial board.

April 2, 2020

China and some of its acolytes are pointing to Beijing’s success in coming to grips with the coronavirus pandemic as a strong case for authoritarian rule.

Despite a poor start, the argument goes, China had the wherewithal to establish a vast containment effort that largely brought the disease to heel within its borders. The World Health Organization called it “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment in history,” which Chinese authorities were quick to translate into encomiums for their leader, President Xi Jinping. “Only in China under the leadership of President Xi can there be such effective measures to put this sudden and fast-spreading epidemic under control,” China’s foreign minister said.

Is that so? Are democracies being hampered by inherent inefficiency and political division — or do their openness and diversity make for a more effective mobilization of the entire population and all its private and public institutions?

Other Asian countries that mounted a relatively effective defense against the coronavirus, most notably South Korea and Taiwan, are boisterous democracies that acted transparently as they restricted travel, organized aggressive testing and imposed strict quarantines. Their response was no doubt shaped by the lessons from relatively recent epidemics, especially the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. But it required no strongman measures.

And that same “leadership of President Xi” was responsible for allowing the coronavirus a critical head start. The government denied the initial evidence and silenced the bearers of bad news, most tragically the Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. By the time Beijing responded, the coronavirus had burst onto the world.

Those who tout the advantages of democracy are apt to quote the economist Amartya Sen’s famous dictum, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” That is because, Mr. Sen argued, democratic governments have to face voters. They have a strong incentive to avert catastrophes.

His argument, however, runs up against the fact that many of today’s authoritarian bosses — Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, for starters — are in power through democratic processes and seem to enjoy broad public support. Yet their operative maxim is more along the lines of “never let a good famine go to waste.”

Mr. Orban, the prime minister of Hungary who has steadily accumulated ever greater powers, was quick to see that the draconian measures being imposed all across Europe were a perfect cover to reach for truly dictatorial powers. Legislation passed by the Hungarian Parliament, controlled by his Fidesz party, effectively allows him to rule by decree, cancel elections and punish spreaders of “false” information. Indefinitely.

No other leader has made a power grab so brazen, but others have also found political advantage in the pandemic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, seemingly facing an inescapable and ignominious end to his many years in office, found respite in the crisis. He ordered most courts closed, putting off his own corruption trial, and managed to maneuver his challenger in three inconclusive elections, Benny Gantz, to join in an emergency “unity” government that promptly destroyed Mr. Gantz’s coalition. But Israel is no autocracy: Mr. Netanyahu’s moves are fiercely debated in the media and in society even as the country arms itself against the coronavirus.

Other governments have taken advantage of the crisis to take actions that otherwise would have been strongly resisted. With India under lockdown, the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced laws that would make it easier for Indians to become permanent residents in the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region.

A look around the world shows many other governments that have overreached in response to the outbreak. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, a ruthless strongman in normal times, seized even greater powers to fight the virus, including the threat of imprisonment for spreading fake news about the coronavirus — a measure that presumably could be used to criminalize criticism of the government. Turkmenistan, arguably the most repressive country in Central Asia, imposed what may be the most draconian approach to information control, arresting people for even discussing the outbreak in public. In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a military coup in 2014, announced he was assuming emergency powers, including the right “to censor or shut down media if necessary.”

Whatever advantages autocracy might offer for shaping a response to the pandemic, it becomes truly dangerous when the strongman chooses to deny the threat or to give some alternative narrative. The all-powerful president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has allowed the country’s Premier League soccer season to proceed as scheduled, arguing — in an echo of President Trump’s comment that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” — that “the panic can hurt us more than the virus itself.” Instead of staying home, as virtually every other government is urging people to do, Mr. Lukashenko recommends that Belarussians imbibe vodka daily, make regular visits to the sauna and do some hard farm work.

In neighboring Russia, where President Putin has ramped up defenses against the outbreak, we can see another problem posed by autocratic regimes: dubious statistics. As of Thursday, Russia had more than 3,500 infections, but for weeks the authorities reported curiously low numbers. The real number may well be far higher. True to form, Russia has also joined China and Iran in spreading disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus on social media — including the theory coming out of Beijing that it’s an American disease that might have been introduced by American military visitors.

In the end, it is hard to draw up a conclusive balance sheet on the relative disease-fighting abilities of autocracies and democracies: The pandemic is far from finished, and there are many factors other than governing style. A country’s wealth and resources obviously play a major role in its ability to respond to an unexpected crisis, and countries with a history of previous epidemics have a clear advantage in coping with new ones.

Yet democracies do appear to hold a clear advantage. That may not seem obvious when China can throw up a new hospital in less than two weeks while New York City is fast running out of hospital beds. But the flow of information and public give-and-take in the United States could serve to constantly fine-tune tactics against the disease; false information, deliberate or not, can be quickly exposed. Transparency, an official in Taiwan noted, was one of the most important factors in the success of the government’s response.

An analysis by The Economist of data from all epidemics since 1960 found that “for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.” One reason, the magazine said, was that authoritarian regimes are “poorly suited to matters that require the free flow of information and open dialogue between citizen and rulers.” It is unlikely that Mr. Lukashenko could sustain his foolhardy stance if Belarus had an independent news media.

Where the Trump administration fits into this debate depends, as does so much in the American political landscape, on which side of the bitter political divide one stands on. The diversity of American democracy — the local governments, varied health services, strong news media and multiple religious institutions — preclude a China-like rule by authoritarian diktat. But the inclination of the autocratically inclined to exploit a crisis should never be dismissed.