Features | Politics

In Asia’s 3 Biggest Democracies, COVID-19 has Entrenched Inequality and Democratic Regression

The effects of the pandemic have fallen most heavily on minorities, while leaders have used COVID-19 as a pretext to expand their executive power.

In Asia’s 3 Biggest Democracies, COVID-19 has Entrenched Inequality and Democratic Regression

Residents watch as a police officer rides atop an Armored Personnel Carrier by their home during the start of a lockdown due to a rise in COVID cases in the city of Navotas, Manila, Philippines, Thursday, July 16, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The coronavirus has caused extremely high death tolls and caseloads in some of the biggest democracies in the world: Brazil, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the United States. Worse, among the three big Southeast Asian and South Asian democracies in this group, the pandemic has had two disastrous effects. It is entrenching economic and social inequalities, and also causing democratic regression. In fact, political leaders have taken advantage of the emergency to further corrode democratic norms and institutions – in these five democracies and across the globe.

Inequality Makes COVID-19 Worse

Though India, Indonesia, and the Philippines all had become relatively stable democracies by the end of the 2000s, these large democratic states had high levels of socioeconomic inequality. Indeed, while these countries are different in many respects, their common histories of deep inequality – and recent leaders who rejected democratic norms – means that comparing their responses to the coronavirus can yield some common lessons.

The historical factors that link income inequality and minorities are not exactly the same in each of these states. India’s caste system and long colonial rule fostered inequality and divisions. The Philippines retains a legacy of wealth concentration dating back to the era of Spanish colonialism; following Spanish rule, a small group of Philippine elites captured a large share of the economy. In Indonesia, the long Suharto dictatorship did create consistent strong growth and fostered some economic equality but also created kleptocratic monopolies in many industries. In the post-Suharto era, monopolies dominate many sectors of the economy, and inequality has skyrocketed.

Yet today they all suffer sizable inequality. The Philippines has high income inequality. Indonesia and India both face sharply rising income inequality. In these diverse countries, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities are overly represented among the poor, and often suffer from lower life expectancies, less access to health care and education, and higher rates of incarceration than people from majority groups.

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Many recent political leaders in these countries passed measures, prior to the onset of COVID-19, that only deepened inequality, and this inequality ultimately made responding to the pandemic harder. For instance, the Duterte government’s “war” on drugs, which has largely consisted of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings, has taken an outsized toll on impoverished Filipinos. Though President Rodrigo Duterte has claimed the drug “war” would target powerful drug dealers, a comprehensive study by Amnesty International found that the poor were disproportionately targeted. (Amnesty called the “war” a “large-scale murdering enterprise.”)

Inequality Hinders COVID-19 Responses

The deep economic and social inequality in these large democracies has hampered their responses to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Because many of these countries have health care systems that function ineffectively for lower-income people, including many minorities, when the virus has spread to poorer areas of the countries – where people are more likely to catch COVID-19 anyway, since they cannot work remotely – hospitals and other facilities have quickly become overwhelmed. The cycle then repeats in these poorer areas, and since the poor do not stay in one area – in India, for instance, poor people have migrated across the country since COVID-19 struck, looking for work – they then spread the virus and hamper any national response.

Policies that hardened inequality often made the situation worse. These five democracies’ general lack of sick leave for lower-income workers, who often work in the informal sector in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, has meant that many poorer men and women have kept working throughout the pandemic, even when they know they might have been infected, since they have no sick leave and cannot afford to lose their jobs.

The countries’ political leaders, who all came to power as anti-system politicians and regularly have disdained expertise, including the expertise of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, have also complicated the pandemic response. Duterte and Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo have both promoted unproven treatments for COVID-19, such as herbal remedies, and sometimes mocked scientific consensus on how to address the pandemic.

Entrenching Inequality and Fostering Democratic Regression

Besides hampering the response, COVID-19 has further entrenched inequality in these big democracies. It also has sped up democratic regression.

The pandemic has entrenched inequality in multiple ways. Simply by killing proportionally more poor people and more minority citizens of these countries, COVID-19, and the ineffective government management of pandemic, have ensured that poor and minority families have fewer potential wage-earners for the future, become more fragmented, and potentially spend more than wealthier peers – who also often have better insurance – on health care during the pandemic. Death tolls for the poor are, per capita, much higher in all of these countries than for wealthier citizens.

The novel coronavirus’s impacts on the labor market will also have lasting effects on socioeconomic inequality. Many other prior economic shocks, like the Great Recession of 2008-09, left lasting scars that widened inequality over the longer-term. Now, as pandemic-related unemployment rises, the biggest job losses have been concentrated in low-wage industries heavily staffed by minorities and the poor – industries that also usually are more exposed to health risks than industries staffed by higher-income people

All of these large democracies suffered huge drops in economic output in 2020. The Philippines suffered its largest economic contraction on record last year, while Indonesia weathered its largest contraction in two decades and India’s economy shrank by nearly 10 percent. Though these three large democracies are not among the world’s poorest states, on a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita basis, the prolonged economic downturns, combined with the concentration of job losses in sectors dominated by minorities and the poor, will damage the job prospects, income, and health of these people for years to come.

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Political leaders in many of these democracies further have scapegoated the poor and minorities during COVID-19, which has caused direct physical harm and also potentially hindered the economic prospects of these groups, making employers potentially less likely to hire them. In India, for example, leading politicians in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party have pushed conspiracy theories blaming Muslims for spreading COVID-19, despite a lack of evidence. Spreading these polarizing conspiracy theories has consequences: they have contributed to a spike in attacks on Muslims in India, and could help push many Muslims out of the economy’s informal sector, costing them jobs and income.

Meanwhile, the poorest children have suffered the most from the switch to remote schooling in many parts of these large democracies; the dramatic impact of the pandemic on schooling also will further entrench inequality in these countries, hurting poorer children over the long-term. In the long run,  the education gap between poorer children doing only remote classes now and wealthier kids doing in-person school will permanently inhibit poorer children’s earnings as adults.

Leaders of these large democracies, like many of their peers in the COVID-19 era, have also used the pandemic to expand their executive power. These men vary in the nature of their illiberalism, and how they have used the pandemic to further centralize power. They range from Duterte, who oversees emergency measures close to outright authoritarianism, to Jokowi, the most reluctant of the five to compromise democratic norms. And the extent of each leader’s damage to democracy has been limited by the strength – or weakness – of his country’s institutions.

Still, all have attacked institutions such as independent judiciaries, bureaucracies, civil societies, electoral apparatuses, and the media, and often have stepped up attacks on norms and institutions during the pandemic, as civil society groups have more trouble holding demonstrations and citizens are distracted by their own (reasonable) fears for their health and their families. Duterte has closed news outlets such as leading broadcaster ABS-CBN, while the president’s allies in the Philippine legislature have given Duterte vast emergency powers, ostensibly to fight COVID-19. Under a new law, the government has the authority to have the police arrest people without warrants. Modi’s administration has politicized India’s courts and has used the coronavirus to further repress the Indian media, already cowed by pressure from Modi’s party and businesses that favor the prime minister.

Though less illiberal than the others, Jokowi has overseen a crackdown on civil society criticism of the government, couched in terms of preventing criticism of the government’s COVID-19 response. Jokowi’s administration also has increasingly revived the use of the armed forces in domestic affairs, including in the pandemic battle, raising further fears of authoritarianism in a country where, during the long Suharto dictatorship, the armed forces were a central, and often brutal, force in domestic politics. The Jokowi administration further has enacted emergency powers during the pandemic that have reduced the independence of local and regional governors.

Indeed, these five large democracies are symbolic of larger trends, as the pandemic has caused democratic regression in much of the world. Yet these nations’ trajectory carries special weight regionally and internationally, because they represent some of the largest democracies in the world. A study by Freedom House released in 2020 revealed that the pandemic had “deepened a crisis for democracy around the world, providing cover for governments to disrupt elections, silence critics and the press, and undermine the accountability needed to protect human rights as well as public health.” Its research showed that the condition of rights and democracy had worsened in 80 countries since the onset of the pandemic. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual index of global democracy, released in February, had strikingly similar findings to Freedom House. It reported that “around the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollbacks of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime,” and that democracy globally was at its weakest point of any time since the index was launched in 2006.

Reconciliation and Reform

Despite all the gloom, the history of other major shocks, like natural disasters, recessions or depressions, and prior waves of disease, suggests that such events, if addressed through effective policymaking, can foster societal reconciliation and prompt dramatic political and economic reforms. In a recent study, Rachel Kleinfeld and Ashley Quarcoo of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace show how shocks like such as the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan promoted political and societal reconciliation.

Conversely, extensive historical evidence suggests that when major emergencies are handled poorly, they can spark more distrust of government, greater societal and political polarization, more inequality, and the emergence of even more authoritarian, illiberal leaders. Past emergencies, such as the Great Depression, that were not effectively addressed by policymakers did not end well. In many countries, of course, the depression fostered intense political polarization, popular disaffection with democracy and embrace of authoritarianism, and ultimately the largest and deadliest inter-state conflicts in human history.

In some smaller democracies, the current pandemic already has sparked attempts at societal and political reconciliation and democratic progress. Politicians in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and South Korea, among other countries, have united around strategies to address COVID-19 and have used the threat of the pandemic to address polarization and try to promote equality. Promoting unity and democratic progress and addressing inequality has proven politically popular as well, and politicians usually gravitate to strategies that also help them maintain popularity and win elections.

In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa also has purposefully tried to take advantage of the greater unity sparked by COVID-19 to promote national reconciliation and combat polarization and inequality. And in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has combined an effective approach to containing COVID-19 with a drumbeat of rhetorical messaging emphasizing New Zealanders’ unity. She was rewarded, in elections in October 2020, with the biggest electoral victory in the country’s modern history. Conversely, the Trump administration’s mishandling and polarization of the pandemic, for instance, played a role in Trump’s recent reelection loss. U.S. incumbent presidents are rarely defeated, and a study released after the election, by political science professors Leonardo Baccini, Abel Brodeur, and Stephen Weymouth, suggested that even with a modestly more effective, unity-building, response to the pandemic and its recessionary effects, Trump could have won reelection.

So, in these three large Asian democracies policymakers should take advantage of this moment, playing on societal desires for unity to promote national reconciliation, reinvigorate democracy, and reduce polarization, as leaders such as Ramaphosa already have in smaller democracies. Ultimately, though, it will be up to voters also to punish the most polarizing and anti-democratic politicians at the ballot box; if they do so, they could prompt political leaders to become more compromising and moderate, and willing to uphold and promote democratic norms and institutions.

Effective reforms in these massive democracies will benefit the wider world as well. Given the size of these democracies, and their regional and global leadership roles, the world will be watching whether they can utilize the pandemic to address their increasingly dysfunctional politics and to make structural changes to their economies and societies.

This article is adapted from a new CFR Discussion Paper “COVID-19 and its Impact on Inequality and Democracy: A Study of Five Large Economies.”