The Debate | Opinion

Democracy? Autocracy? Coronavirus Doesn’t Care.

Capacity for governance best predicts the performance countries have against the coronavirus.

By Maylin Meisenheimer for
Democracy? Autocracy? Coronavirus Doesn’t Care.
Credit: NIH via Wikimedia Commons

In recent weeks, panic spurred by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has swept the globe, reaching a fever pitch in the United States in the last few days. Schools, churches, museums, and sporting events have been shuttered around the world, including Disney theme parks for the first time since the September 11 attacks, and over 181,000 confirmed cases have been reported worldwide as of March 16. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Governments around the world have used a variety of methods to quell the spread, some more successfully than others, sparking debate over which political system is most effective amid a pandemic. Despite initial failures that resulted in COVID-19’s unchecked spread, China unsurprisingly has since tried to spin the message, applauding itself for its quick response and “spirit of self-sacrifice,” and promoting its authoritarian model as the one best suited to get things done in the face of a crisis. Even the WHO has commended China for its efforts. However, on the other side of the political spectrum, democratic governments and the Western media have pushed back, arguing that democracies are better equipped to handle the growing threat.

Steps, Not Systems

However, SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — has not differentiated between democracies and autocracies. To this point, Italy and China have been hardest hit, and their governments bear almost no resemblance to each other. Normally, democracies excel in disease control due to free information flow and collaboration with political allies and civil society, yet in this case, many democratic countries have failed to take advantage of these inherent strengths. The United States had over a month to prepare for the arrival of the new coronavirus but did almost nothing whereas Taiwan began monitoring immediately (resulting in over 4,600 cases in the U.S. currently and just 77 in Taiwan). The emphasis on the merits of a political system has taken the focus away from the concrete steps that have stopped the spread, democracy or not. In this outbreak, the main factors for success have been early acknowledgement of the threat, transparency around data and information sharing, and government-coordinated social messaging.

The countries that acknowledged the danger early on and began widespread testing immediately have fared better than those that downplayed the threat. Although South Korea has reported around 8,300 cases, more than 248,000 people have been tested since the first case in January, and recent numbers have shown a downward trend in new cases. In Singapore, an expansive contact tracing system quarantined over 3,000 people in the first few weeks of the outbreak. So far, despite its proximity to China, Singapore has reported around 240 cases. Similarly, Taiwan began aggressive testing and monitoring in the first few days of the outbreak and has only reported 77 cases as of March 17. These governments’ quick response times and early acknowledgement of the disease may end up saving thousands of lives.

In contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump ignored the risk completely until a few days ago, tweeting a comparison of coronavirus and the flu on March 9 and saying that “life & the economy goes on.” He has also blamed the Democratic Party for inflaming the situation and has said that the “risk is low to the average American.” As of March 17, the United States has reported over 4,600 cases, less than two months after the first case was diagnosed in Washington State (and experts estimate that the actual number is much higher). Italy has also struggled with an explosion in cases, reporting nearly 28,000. Both countries waited almost a month or longer after the first cases were diagnosed to take aggressive action. This lag in response time led to the exponential growth of the disease, which Singapore and Taiwan have been so far able to avoid. If the United States and Italy had used the time before their first reported cases to prepare for an outbreak and fully acknowledge the danger it posed, growth rates may have been lower once the disease reached their borders. These nations had ample time to ready themselves yet ignored and downplayed the risk until it was too late. Instead of benefiting from a government system that encourages collaboration and coordinated response, many Western democracies failed to take advantage of these strengths, to the detriment of their people. 

The Importance of Transparency

Furthermore, countries with greater transparency around data and information-sharing have more successfully slowed infection rates. At the start of the outbreak, Taiwan began holding daily press conferences and coordinating private and public sector efforts to disseminate information. For instance,  Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang improved upon a Taiwanese software engineer’s real-time map to show people where to buy face masks. Politicians have been active on social media to keep people informed of policy changes and to correct rumors. In South Korea, the government has implemented a tracking system that allows people to see where infected patients have traveled, which, although controversial, has kept the government from putting any area on complete lockdown. There is also free and convenient access to tests, and a hotline with twice-daily updates has been established to keep the population informed.

China, by contrast, has had little to no transparency around data sharing or the spread of the disease, first hiding the initial outbreak and denying the severity, and later deleting social media posts about the virus and deaths related to it. This response not only decreases peoples’ faith in their government but also withholds important information that could prevent greater disease spread.

Information transparency has no place in an autocracy that is more concerned with social stability than correcting misinformation, but even in a democracy like the United States, there has been little transparency around the government’s response. Although the first reported case in the U.S. was in January, experts now estimate that the disease was circulating in Washington state for several weeks before the danger was realized. Despite an almost month-long gap between China’s first reported case and the Washington case, little was done to increase information sharing about the disease or inform the public about potential risks. The lack of transparency around the issue has led to panic and feelings of helplessness. The U.S. government has only recently begun to take active measures to control the spread, and it is still unclear if those efforts will be effective as the number of cases grows each day.

Messaging Matters

Finally, successful responses to COVID-19 had early government-coordinated social messaging. South Korea focused on mobilizing civil society from the start of the outbreak, asking groups to cancel major events and moving gatherings online. In Taiwan, the government established 124 new safety protocols and urged citizens to comply with the new measures and take individual action to quell the spread. The major theme of each country’s messaging was that individuals could take steps early on to prevent a larger outbreak, and Taiwan especially has benefited from the push for coordinated action. Schools had an extended winter break after the Lunar New Year but were reopened by February 25, whereas there are currently 85 countries that have had to close schools due to the outbreak, affecting over 776 million students globally.

The lack of coordinated political messaging in the United States and Italy could be a major factor in the severity of the spread. President Trump routinely played down the seriousness of the threat until only a few days before he was forced to declare a national emergency. Italian politicians had similarly disregarded the severity of the outbreak, with the head of the Democratic Party, Nichola Zingaretti, pushing a “business as usual” message until he himself came down with the virus. On social media in the United States, many accounts first made light of the threat, posting statistics about the seemingly low mortality rate instead of showing how collective action could stop a greater outbreak. Only when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a graphic about “flattening the curve” showing how slowing the spread of disease could ultimately save thousands of lives did the significance of individual action start to sink in — a message that Taiwan and South Korea had been pushing for weeks.

The politicization of coronavirus responses has done nothing to stop the spread of the disease, and the focus on government systems takes the focus away from the things that matter. As world leaders and movie stars begin to fall ill, it’s clear that COVID-19 does not discriminate based on nationalities or celebrity. The global pandemic will continue to spread unless governments can create coordinated and efficient responses to the disease. While democracies may be more poised to deal with these threats due to ease of coordination and information sharing, the United States and other Western democracies have done little to capitalize on these strengths. The politicization of the virus and finger pointing by President Trump may be our downfall unless greater and more competent action is taken soon.

Maylin Meisenheimer is a first-year student at NYU Law and a former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.