The COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a test of the preparedness of countries’ public health and governance systems. As countries diverge in their strategies to fight the epidemic, we have more and more opportunities for learning about what works and what doesn’t, both in terms of public health practices and in the types of political and administrative systems.
The latter has been a particularly hot topic. China, for instance, claims that its centralized, leadership-driven model is at the root of its success in fighting the virus, while western democratic governments have been slow and disorganized. This claim is part of the broader narrative promoted by similarly illiberal regimes on the alleged superiority of centralized, authoritarian governance systems over their liberal democratic alternatives. On the other hand, western democracies like Canada have argued for decades that transparent, democratic governance is the cure to all that ails the world. They blame the Chinese government for failing to act early enough, and for covering up the problem. So, who is right?
At first glance, the Chinese government seems to have a case. The shambolic reactions to the pandemic in Italy, Spain, the USA and the UK are hardly good advertising for liberal democracy. In terms of “performance legitimacy”, i.e. public confidence in the state’s ability to deliver the basic public goods of safety, health and opportunity, these leading democracies have fared poorly in recent weeks. In democracies, decision-making is constrained by public accountability mechanisms. Their governance systems require a balancing act between various branches of government and domestic political players. Critics allege that these checks and balances make democracies slow and ineffective in a crisis.
Proponents of more centralized, authoritarian regimes argue that they can mobilize faster and more effectively than their democratic rivals. Authoritarian regimes do not have to win public support or engage in protracted negotiations with coalition partners. As authoritarian regimes possess a virtually guaranteed monopoly over political power and public resources, they can implement measures quickly and thoroughly once a policy is adopted. This is the official narrative regarding China’s “success” in fighting the novel coronavirus.
Unfortunately for the proponents of authoritarian rule, reality is not quite so simple. The list of countries with the greatest success in controlling the pandemic to date must include at least a few liberal democracies, notably South Korea and Taiwan. Conversely, the list of authoritarian regimes that have suffered great losses is long, and their responses ranged from ignoring the pandemic to adopting the elements of traditional medicine and being outrageously brutal.
Neither side in this sterile debate between authoritarians and democrats has it entirely right. A more nuanced analysis focusing on incentives, leadership and state capacity might prove more informative. The Chinese case, for instance, is more complicated than either side claims. Yuen Yuen Ang’s recent analysis shows how China’s highly centralized power structure disempowered local officials in Wuhan and discouraged them from reporting honestly on the COVID-19 outbreak; their initial reaction was to hide the bad news and blame the messenger. But, once the top leadership in Beijing was apprised of the situation, the Chinese central government acted firmly, effectively and with remarkable speed, though too late to prevent spread outside of Wuhan or out of China.
Similarly, in South Korea, the government’s own foreign minister admitted that the outbreak “initially surprised authorities” and caught them flat-footed. When officials and researchers then realized that the initial South Korean outbreak was mainly due to a single “super spreader”, authorities acted quickly to bring things under control. Both China and South Korea show the importance of deconstructing the simple narratives of “success” and “failure.” Initial failings can give rise to later successes. Success may, however, be relative, as even the Chinese politburo standing committee has admitted. Both Wuhan and South Korea now face second-wave outbreaks.
The government’s capacity on all levels is a determining factor in developing effective pandemic response measures. Competent government leadership, coupled with highly skilled public servants on the technical level, has been decisive in controlling the situation in many countries. Another critical factor is the ability to mobilize efforts and resources early. Both agile democracies and autocracies alike were able to limit the spread of the pandemic by quickly mobilizing the entire government machinery and allocating public resources to introduce lockdown and quarantine measures.
What also matters is the previous exposure to similar crises in the past. The South-East Asian countries were in the epicentre of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s, and they clearly learned their lessons, making their decisions in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic based on evidence and rigorous research. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in South Korea in 2015 also served as a wake-up call, to which it responded by modifying laws on epidemic diseases and introducing changes in surveillance practices. Yet, the MERS outbreak has also shown how important it was to identify the disease ‘hot spots’ (which happened to be the country’s hospitals) and take timely precautionary measures. Provincial authorities in Ontario have responded similarly recently, by introducing plans to strengthen surveillance measures in over 620 nursing homes, whose vulnerability to COVID-19 emerged as a major issue.
In short, the debate about which regimes are more effective in responding to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic must transcend the simplistic authoritarian vs. democratic narrative, bringing in a range of other factors such as the competencies of senior- and technical-level government officials, countries’ ability to mobilize quickly across the sectors and industries, and exposure to similar crises in the past.