There is no doubt that 2020 will be a year studied in history books. The world has been plummeted into a deep hole of uncertainty, and it is in this moment that immediate and effective action is required from our governments. However, democracies around the world have failed to deliver effective solutions to the pandemic. In the United States, COVID-19 has become a political issue, with the federal, state and local authorities often undermining each other’s responses. Meanwhile, the aggressive manner in which China has responded to COVID-19, which included immediate building of hospitals and extreme surveillance, has been praised by the WHO and Southeast Asian Nations countries. This begs the question, are authoritarian regimes better equipped to properly deal with unexpected events and crisis?
To answer this, we must see the bigger picture and analyse the trends. China has done well in dealing with the crisis, but have other authoritarian regimes managed? Evidence suggests that Turkey and Russia have largely failed to do so. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, both countries are now in Level Three Precaution (the highest possible), and any non-necessary travel strongly disadvised. Indeed, the large amounts of misinformation put forward by the Kremlin led the Russians to believe that the crisis wasn’t as bad there, and as a result, the stringent lockdown measures instituted in Moscow beginning March 25 were largely ignored. On the other hand, we can see that democracies have dealt differently with the crisis. Some, specifically Australia, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, and South Korea, among others, were fairly successful in containing the virus and limiting deaths. Others, like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Spain, and India have not performed as well. In France and Italy, opposition parties played a key role in overseeing the choices of the governments both in lockdowns and reopening, and offering alternate solutions. The U.K. was able to ensure democratic continuity even after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was diagnosed with COVID-19 by having Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab fill in for him temporarily. German federalism allowed for state-specific responses. South Korea has managed to use contact-tracing apps while protecting democracy and personal data. It seems that the type of government that a country has does not predict how well or poorly it manages a crisis.
Moreover, it is important to bring to light the opportunity that the pandemic has created for authoritarian governments to extend state power. A clear example of this is Hungary, where the passing of an “enabling act” extended the government’s emergency powers, criminalizing “fearmongering” in order to silence the opposition and authorizing national security agencies access to state-run and municipal databases.In Moscow, tens of thousands of cameras with facial-recognition features were supposedly installed to track contagion, but risk remaining in place beyond the pandemic. And in Turkey, academics need special permissions from the government in order to access COVID-19 data.
The democratic model has long been under pressure, due to the rise of populist and nationalist movements, and external geopolitical threats from authoritarian countries. But COVID-19 is a different kind of challenge, it has made us question globalization, democratic decision making, and the reliability of science and information. It would be foolish, however, to believe that democracy is inherently worse at dealing with crisis than authoritarian regimes, and to justify the lack of rights in these second countries with a rapid response to COVID-19. The pandemic should be seen as an opportunity to analyse and improve our democratic systems.