COVID-19 and the Invitation to Authoritarianism

The COVID-19 pandemic has fostered a worrying resurgence in authoritarian behavior and popular sympathy for autocracy, encouraged by the theory that authoritarian regimes handle such crises significantly better than democracies. Authoritarian regimes, the story goes, can enact sweeping and decisive action quickly while democracies flounder in debate and excessive bureaucracy as citizens fall prey to illness. To its detractors, these aspects of democracy are a needless waste of time when the country is in danger. However, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are untrue; democracies have been tremendously successful at handling the pandemic, and the democracies which have struggled with the virus have faltered because their response was hindered by their authoritarian tendencies.

The world’s oldest continuous democracy, the United States, failed to combat the virus, which effectively shocked the democratic world. However, America’s problems with COVID-19 have little to do with its democratic institutions. Instead, they are largely the result of opportunistic political leaders who have attempted to erode the impartiality and transparency of scientific agencies by obfuscating, manipulating, and hiding the data surrounding infection and death rates, all of which are hallmark authoritarian tactics.

At the same time, this behavior is not exclusive to the United States. Brazil has also suffered horribly as its government has withheld COVID-19 data from their citizens. International authoritarians are learning a bad lesson from China – that you can fake your way to success at fighting the virus by hiding and doctoring statistics surrounding COVID-19 in your country.  A dictatorship like China may be able to act decisively by building special COVID hospitals practically overnight, but such drastic actions leave little time for planning or deliberation (it was no surprise, then, when these shoddy constructions tragically began to collapse). Autocrats have also taken advantage of the crisis to entrench their power. For example, Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, used the pandemic to gain emergency powers to rule by decree to ostensibly curb the pandemic, destroying any vestige of democracy the Central European nation once had.

The democracies that did the best at keeping their citizens safe from the virus were governments that were clear and honest about their disease statistics from the beginning. South Korea, touted universally as a success during the pandemic, built that success upon transparent statistics and accessible information on the virus and testing, as well as diligent care for the infected and a general sense of public trust. On the other hand, the United States has tried to keep infection statistics down by deliberately making testing less available. Leaders cannot pretend the virus away; artificially deflating numbers keeps nobody safe.

Sweden’s approach to the pandemic has been a testament to the critical role of trust between a government and its citizens in combating the virus. The Swedish government was able to successfully avoid imposing a hard lockdown, instead trusting its citizens to follow social distancing guidelines. In a country where citizens have a strong sense of societal solidarity and feel that they have a voice in their own government— two cornerstones of democracy—citizens are more likely to follow public health guidelines.

This pandemic could (and should) be an opportunity for democracy to triumph. We must resist the temptation to believe that the decisive action of strongmen is an effective way to defend public health. Instead, we must embrace our democratic values and work as citizens to protect one another both from the ills of the virus and the evils of authoritarianism.