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Political regimes in a race to fight a pandemic
June 16, 2020 0

In a race to fight a widespread pandemic, who will win?
Democratic or authoritarian regimes?

Corona’s pandemic has swept the whole world in an exponential manner and imposed itself at the top of government agendas. At first, the competition was economic and military, but now the dominating competition is who is the most effective in combating the epidemic. However, this competition in its new form is beneficial to all. In other words, the success of a country in eradicating the disease brings benefits to the rest, contrary to what is envisioned about previous forms of competition.

In the light of the significant changes that countries make in their regulations, international solidarity and the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), multiple comparisons have emerged between countries, so we see daily updates from all countries about the number of cases, deaths, recoveries and different rates of this, with the various presentation methods used by media. As the world pursues the best means to combat the epidemic, comparisons are increasingly being made between countries and the various policies they adopt to curb the spread of the Corona epidemic. Some of these comparisons were on political grounds, linking the success of countries and policies in addressing the pandemic to the systems followed in the governance and management of the country ‘s affairs, especially with the fact that the United States, ” the leader of the free world” as it claims, is leading the world in the number of cases, and the collapse of the health systems in Britain and Italy during the outbreak of the pandemic, while on the same time, China was celebrating the recording of zero cases as  its economy rises 1 3.9% in April compared to last year.

We see the World Health Organization praises China for its success in dealing with the pandemic, and in return, we find Germany and America blame China for the epidemic and demand compensation, and the United States denounces the praise and the leniency of the World Health Organization in dealing with China and stops WHO funding. In the midst of these comparisons and after more than 13 years of the global decline in democracy according to Freedom House reports 2, and in light of the acceleration of the decline in democratic practices since the start of the pandemic, according to experts3, a question arose about the usefulness of democracies in combating pandemics, and how useful authoritarian  systems are  in such times.

Here we ask, which regime is the most effective in responding to the pandemic: the democratic or the authoritarian?

Are authoritarian regimes the most effective in responding to pandemics?

Supporting Arguments

Authoritarian regimes are faster and able to implementing and enforce policies more effectively

More effective and decisive in decision-making

Authoritarian regimes are characterized by the ability to make decisions quickly, decisively and without long procedures, which is of great importance during crises such as the Corona pandemic, as any delay will increase losses, due to several reasons:The government’s control of the state’s authorities and the absence of multiple bodies with different conflicting interests and complicated procedures that share the decision and prolong the decision-making process means passing decisions with ease and speed, so we see China decides overnight to isolate millions of people in Hubei and stop the factories and take many measures. This action made Dr. Tedros 4, Director-General of the World Health Organization, praise China, for the speedy discovery, isolation,  transparency and its assistance to the organization and the countries of the world.

Absence of  confusing internal conflicts and pressures of voters and interest groups, as authoritarian regimes  are characterized by the absence of the permanent conflict for power that  is present in democratic regimes and the strong dominance, allowing greater ability to focus on issues such as the spread of the pandemic as this reduces the political pressure before and after any decision. For example, assuming that the complete lockdown of the movement of travelers at the beginning of the crisis was the best solution to halt the spread of the pandemic, it will be difficult for decision makers in a democratic system to take this step as this will affect their odds in the elections, their staying in power  and their chances as their voters and wealthy supporters prefer individualism in democratic societies, which may lead to decisions that do not prioritize national interest in regard to overcoming the pandemic. A case in point would be the Champions league match that took place in Italy5 and the subsequent spread of the pandemic and the collapse of the health system. This also means that authoritarian regimes can focus on what is beneficial in the long run and their ability to  make bold decisions without fear that this will affect their chances in the upcoming elections.

Learning from previous mistakes and successful experiences is easy. We see many Asian countries such as China, have learned from their mistakes in the SARS experience and were characterized by the rapid analysis of the epidemic and transparency and their swift decision to close the hotspots of the disease, which led to their control of the disease that we see today. By contrast, we see many more democratic countries that do not learn from the experiences of China and other successful Asian countries, which led to the collapse of their healthcare systems and the increasing number of deaths that could have been avoided, as we see in Britain, Italy, America and Spain .

Slowing down in the democratic process, although it has benefits in several aspects, but it has a negative impact in situations that require firm and effective application, especially when the decision-making process is complicated. For this reason and other reasons many philosophers were  against the system of democracy, including their leader Socrates, who  envisioned the risk carried by the poor knowledge of voters that could lead to bad choices because of their fear .

More able to impose and apply and less affected by conflicts

Authoritarian regimes are faster and more able in implementing and enforcing policies after approval compared to their democratic counterparts.The concentration of power and control over all aspects of the state allows them to quickly allocate resources and unify efforts to combat the crisis, which is of great importance, especially in such a crisis that threatens humanity, unlike democratic systems in which the interests of individuals and multiple groups hinder their ability to fight the pandemic. We see China builds an integrated dedicated isolation hospital over days, and we see India applies total lockdown with notice given only four hours before it began. On the other hand, we see state governors in America refuse to comply with the precautionary directives, with many individuals armed  with weapons took to streets in demonstrations denying the existence of the Corona Virus or rejecting the control policies, claiming that these policies infringe on their personal freedom, or even seeing them enjoying on the shores of Miami at the beginning of the crisis with the blessing of the state’s governor.

The absence of confusing internal disputes, where it is easy for authoritarian regimes to control the media, reduce misleading news, and reduce demonstrations related to other issues or to the negative aspects of their decisions, such as what happened in India with protests against the new anti-Muslim citizenship law, and in Russia and the Philippines. This is on contrary to what happened in many of the most democratic regimes where we see many demonstrations in European countries and America for several reasons, which led to a rise in infected cases.

on the other side…

Opposing Arguments

Transparency and accountability are of particular importance during crises and guarantee better decisions and practices

The lack of credibility and transparency of authoritarian regimes favors democracies and worsens the situation

A fundamental reason why we are aware of the weaknesses of democracies and the failure of some policies is the freedom of information and expression and political freedoms that allow everyone, especially the opposition, to criticize and hold accountability, which in turn plays a fundamental role in the democratic process. In authoritarian regimes, media blackout and the absence of freedom of expression and the arrest of activists and dissidents and their repression gives a false suggestion of the power of the state and the success of its policies. Therefore, we cannot trust authoritarian regimes and their statements in the absence of freedom of expression .

According to the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch 7 , at the time China claiming control of the pandemic, it continues to give priority to their political goals and prevent all independent investigations and expel journalists and reporters and prevent them from checking it. In addition, many countries follow China in the arrest of journalists, activists, and even health officers and anyone daring to criticize the official version of the state, relating to COVID19, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh and Turkey.

And in India 8 the Supreme Court issued a ruling mandating the media to publish only the official version issued by the government, which means the abolition of freedom of the press in relation to the pandemic and the abolition of its important role in correction and the identification of defects and accountability, and this comes at a time when the state arrests many journalists  and makes up charges against them related to the precautionary measures of fighting the pandemic.

Freedom of expression and the availability of accurate information are of great importance, especially in times of crisis such as the pandemic, where it corrects the inputs of the process of dealing with the pandemic and identifies glitches and errors and prevents its exacerbation, such as what happened with the SARS virus 17 years ago 9, where China hid it, causing it to spread to the world causing many deaths. Also, before that, when the Soviet Union tried to conceal the explosion of reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl station in 1986, causing the largest nuclear catastrophe the world has known, therefore US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien likened the way China deals with the Corona epidemic to Soviet union’s hiding of what happened at Chernobyl station.   

Many authoritarian regimes concealed sensitive and important information related to the Corona pandemic, causing many damages that could have been avoided. For example, China silenced and suppressed doctors who had warned of the pandemic, resulting in giving Corona virus 3 weeks to spread outside its origin in Wuhan, causing the rapidly expanding outbreak of the pandemic and the consequences of that. This was one of the reasons for accusations by many, led by Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, to the extent that America is asking China to pay compensations.

In addition, several reports and studies indicate that China concealed information about the beginning of the pandemic, such as a study of Harvard University 10 refers to the presence of an abnormal increase in the movement in the hospitals in China and the increasing search for symptoms associated with Corona Virus in the search engines before the time announced by China as the beginning of the virus, And also an Associated Press 11 report indicating that China has hidden information about the pandemic and waited a week before it published details of the virus.

The attempt of authoritarian regimes to manipulate events to their advantage extends beyond its borders,  as China is carrying out campaigns to mislead and improve its image in the face of the pandemic and to control the narrative, as shown in the study of 12 publications and press coverage.

Exploit the pandemic to extend its control and pass plans

There are reasons for stringent measures in the authoritarian regimes away from fighting Corona, where many leaders exploit the crisis to achieve personal gains, either by passing laws or increasing their powers:According to Human Rights Watch7, many dictators have exploited the crisis to suppress opponents and declare a state of emergency under the pretext of combating false news, such as Hungary, which passed a law allowing the imprisonment of journalists for five years in the event of releasing news deemed “false”, and its Prime Minister passed a law giving him dictatorial powers for an indefinite period allowing him to pass laws quickly and without opposition. The same also happened in the Philippines with the declaration of a state of emergency and the increase in the president’s powers on the pretext of suppressing false news .

Other countries also exploit the crisis for political gains and the suppression of demonstrations. For example, Russia banned demonstrations even if they were by one person at a time when Putin is trying to pass a law allowing his fifth term. Similarly, India banned the demonstrations against racist law against Muslims, enabling it to effect 13 major changes in the demographics in favor of its anti-Muslim policies .

As for privacy, in India, there are many concerns 8 about privacy encroachment due to a forced phone application that has become the fastest app downloaded in history, with more than 80 million users downloading in a short period, and with the lack of clarity about how the Indian government deals with Data, which is worrisome in a country where there are simply no laws to protect data, as the most recent was in 1885 for the Telegraph .

Better decisions and rights conservation

Democracy, although not always the fastest in decision-making and implementation, is the best of both.Transparency and accountability are of particular importance during crises and guarantee better decisions and practices where officials in democratic systems are less corrupt and do not favor personal interests as they are more prone to accountability, especially with the separation of powers and the availability of control methods and accountability. In democratic systems, People’s representative can be held accountable and responsible for their wrongful actions according to established laws. Also, in special times, such as a pandemic, rational decision making, transparency and accountability are all more important .

The permanent  recklessness and suppression of freedoms in  authoritarian regimes should not be justified by the fact that it may be useful sometimes or in special situations (even if this is a questionable hypothesis due to the absence of credibility and transparency, as we have explained previously).

Means to speed up decisions or strengthen the executive authority are available in the democratic regimes when needed and for exceptional circumstances, such as executive decisions in America. For example, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel increased her powers by the Basic Law (Constitution) of Germany for dealing with a pandemic.

The important point when considering these comparisons to judge systems is that the method of governance is not everything, the nature of the leaders in democratic systems plays an important role as the existence of leaders such as Trump and Boris with their nationalistic right-wing  policies has had negative effect during the pandemic, unlike most countries, which have good democracy and have controlled the pandemic, such as New Zealand that eliminated pandemic 14 did not record any new cases for nearly a month, Germany, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan. Therefore, it is not correct to hunt bad examples of democracy and try to generalize their negative points.

The strength of implementing measures is not necessarily the best option, as the gains of precautionary measures must be balanced against their harm. This is not only for economy, but society as a whole, especially towards vulnerable groups, such as effects on minorities in America, especially blacks, in their struggle against police violence and institutional racism, and on women forced to stay at home with the increase in cases of domestic violence, and the prisoners who lose their ability  to receive health care and communicate with their lawyers, etc.

In addition, rigor decisions does not necessarily mean effectiveness, as study 15 using movement data indicates that when applying similar policies to limit movement during a pandemic, democratic states were more effective in limiting movement than authoritarian countries .

Finally, democracy, despite all its limitations, is better than other regimes. As Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


By: Saad Elasad – Debate Coach at QatarDebate

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