The final effects of the COVID-19 crisis remain to be seen, and so far both democratic and authoritarian countries have shown success as well as failures in fighting the pandemic, albeit that there appear to be more democracies among the countries that have succeeded well in tackling the coronavirus*. Citizens’ trust in the governance and government efficiency may be more decisive than the type of regime. However, democracy has a number of traits that contribute to the fight against pandemic. 

As was seen in the case of China especially in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary goal of an authoritarian regime is to protect its own power rather than citizens. In China, truth was considered more problematic that the disease itself, which led to failure in preventing the virus from spreading in the very beginning. The whole system is based on weak transparency as local authorities cover up bad news from central government and the central government from citizens. Transparency and free flow of information are among the basic pillars of democracy. They make it possible to react quickly and to inform citizens in a crisis situation, and enhance trust in the governance. This, in turn, affects how well instructions are followed and whether people, civil society and local authorities report on problems as they occur. 

Responding to global threats also requires international cooperation, where authoritarian countries have not always excelled. Although China made the genome of the coronavirus available to international researchers and has generously offered help to other countries affected by the virus, it took a long time for China to let a WHO expert group in the country and it delayed the announcement of the spread of the new coronavirus. China’s generosity in the crisis also seems to aim mostly at strengthening its own status, which is supported by a propaganda campaign that highlights stories of Chinese aid arriving in other countries. 

Polarization of the society may have an impact on the attitudes towards the spreading of the virus. In a deeply divided society, pandemic can also be politicized. In the United States, for example, as President Trump downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19, public attitudes also varied according to party affiliation, with Democrats more concerned about the virus than Republicans. Division of the society may also be seen in the attitudes towards expert information and public instructions. Polarization is not a problem of only some particular form of government, but it is created and deepened by political leaders labelling opponents as immoral or corrupt and thus creating us and themcamps that feed into distrust. Dialogue and ability to collaborate between political partiesboth of which are signs of a healthy democracycan thus prevent polarization. 

Democracy is also connected to public health. Democratic governments invest more in health care, and government effectiveness and life expectancy are higher in democracies. According to research, democratic form of government also correlates with lower mortality rates on most diseases, albeit that the connection is weak when it comes to infectious diseases. On the other hand, data exists that shows lower epidemic-related mortality rates in democracies compared to authoritarian countries. There may not be a direct link between democracy and lower COVID-19 mortality rates, but on average, democratic countries are better equipped in taking care of the health of citizens than their authoritarian counterparts. Free flow of information enhances citizenscapacity to take care of their health, and democracies are better placed to develop health care based on feedback from citizens and experts. One of the most essential features of democracy is free civil society, whose role in providing information and services, defending citizensrights, and monitoring the government is crucial to well-functioning health services.

There is cause for concern about the state of democracy 

In recent years, there has been a worrying trend of many aspects of democracy declining even in established democracies, according to several reports that analyse the state of democracy globally. In addition, citizensdissatisfaction with the quality of democracy is on the rise. Civic space and judicial independence especially are in decline. The COVID-19 crisis has led to further curtailment of civil and political rights and poses a threat to democracy also in the long run. When leaders of democratic countries act in ways that decrease media freedom, increase citizensdistrust towards each other, governance and experts, and prioritize political views instead of expertise when appointing civil servants, they also weaken the country’s capacity to face crisis such as pandemics. 

There is no straightforward answer to whether democratic or authoritarian regime is better in handling the pandemic caused by COVID-19. Time will tell how different countries will eventually cope with the crisis and what the long-term effects of the pandemic and its possible new waves will be. However, the citizens of democratic countries can assess the performance of their government, based on information from different sources, and express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction by voting in the next elections.

* Situation on 31.5.2020.

Anna Juhola
The author works as Demo Finland’s Communications and Programme Manager

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.