COVID-19 will not only test the best public health strategies but also what governments are likeliest to take effective measures. Liam Glen writes on how the cases of China and Iran showcase the weakness of authoritarianism in times of crisis.
COVID-19, the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, has become an international priority. Its comparatively low death rate means that even in the worst-case scenarios it will not be as devastating as past crises like the 1918 influenza pandemic. But if it continues at its current pace, the results will still be tragic.
Epidemiological models show that COVID-19 has the potential to infect a majority of all people on Earth. But the experts behind these predictions emphasize that this is not inevitable. The spread of the virus will be severely limited if governments, companies, and individuals take proper steps to keep it contained.
Crises like these are learning opportunities. The success and failure of different strategies across the globe will educate public health experts on how to prevent future outbreaks. In addition, COVID-19 will affect a variety of countries with a variety of political systems. The outbreak will certainly offer clues about what types of governments are best-suited for handling such events.
Dictators’ Illusion of Control
In China, where COVID-19 originated, the government has implemented strict quarantines and surveillance. Assessments of this strategy often veer into quasi-laudatory comments about China’s government, including a description of the authoritarian state as “unique in that it has a political system that can gain public compliance with extreme measures.”
This plays into a popular perception of dictatorships as competent and responsive to crises in a way that democracies are not. But it is only due to the Chinese government’s slow initial response to COVID-19 that it has spread as far as it has today.
When whistleblower Doctor Li Wenliang, who later died of the disease, first spread word of a mysterious virus in Wuhan province, local authorities silenced him to stop widespread panic. It was only when COVID-19 became an epidemic that the state was forced to make forceful, last-ditch efforts to stop it.
President Xi Jinping has spent the last years consolidating the central government’s power. But this has ironically made it more difficult for him to effectively rule. When there is no source of information outside of the state, then even the central government itself only knows what is happening based on what its underlings say. And they, like the local government of Wuhan, have a strong incentive to conceal bad news as long as possible to keep their superiors happy.
This is the paradox of authoritarian regimes. Even a dictator who theoretically holds absolute power still needs military, police, tax collectors, and others to actually enforce that power. These people will inevitably have their own agenda. Without elections to keep them accountable to the people, they will spend far more time on petty power plays than actually performing their functions.
A similar process has played out in Iran, where the virus is spreading out of control. Doctors Kamiar and Arash Alaei, who have previously been imprisoned by the government for their work to fight HIV/AIDS, accuse the regime of neglecting essential social services in favor of short-term political interests.
The Right Way Forward
A correlation between democracy and health is no coincidence. The lack of accountability leads to underinvestment in public health and a paucity of reliable information. It is unsurprising that Taiwan, which is separated from China only by a narrow straight but has a democratic government that has responded to the crisis by emphasizing transparency, has had far fewer problems with COVID-19.
Of course, democracy is not a guarantee of success. Italy, for instance, has been one of the worst-hit countries. Geography, public health infrastructure, and simple luck also play major roles.
As COVID-19 runs its course, we will learn more about which approaches do and do not work. But one certainty is that we need systems where the well-being of the country comes before short-term political gain.