May 27, 2020


Why Democracies Do Better at Surviving Pandemics (Robin Niblett & Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, 5/26/20, Chatham House)

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. 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 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 nearly 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 first became president in 2000.

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 January 8.

The fact is that 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 done 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 hear bad news late and must then rely on rigid bureaucracies to deliver complex responses.

Posted by at May 27, 2020 12:00 AM