Chong Ja Ian, Harvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar 2019-2020, discusses claims that authoritarian political systems are better able to handle the COVID-19 crisis than are more open ones.
Currently making mainstream and social media rounds are claims that authoritarian systems or places with supposed “Confucian values” are better than more open political systems at handling public health crises like the current COVID-19 pandemic. This reflects an attribution error. States with more authoritarian systems like China and Iran have suffered from COVID-19 as much as those with more open ones, such as Italy and Spain. That the PRC appears to have eventually brought COVID-19 under control cannot avoid the reality that the outbreak began with initial missteps by the Chinese state, and that control came at high human cost. Taiwan and South Korea demonstrate that more open political systems that care about individual rights too can employ effective means of disease control.
As of mid-March, new COVID-19 infections in China seem to be declining and recovery rates rising after more than 80,000 reported cases with around 3,200 deaths. Chinese authorities obviously deserve some credit for disease control. Yet the numbers also reflect a failure to contain and prevent the spread of the disease in its early stages, stemming from the suppression of reporting and initial inaction by authorities. Such conditions hampered mitigation efforts and the Chinese state opted to forcibly isolate whole regions, notably in Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, and surrounding Hubei province. As public health systems in Wuhan and Hubei were overwhelmed, the region ended up accounting for more than 90 percent of COVID-19 deaths in China, about half the world total so far. The logic seemed to be to sacrifice Wuhan and Hubei for the sake of other regions.
As democracies that value transparency and restraints on political power, Taipei and Seoul faced greater constraints preventing them from suspending civil liberties and blocking off whole communities, especially if this risked reducing medical care in affected areas. Drawing on experience dealing with past SARS and MERS outbreaks, the Taiwan and South Korean governments engaged aggressive contact tracing, testing, home quarantine, and public updating while their populations practised social distancing. A result is that Taiwan currently has fewer than a hundred infections and no community transmission, while South Korea’s public health system limited death rates to 0.8 percent despite more than 8,000 infections. That more than 60 percent of South Korea’s cases resulted from a secretive church further underscores the importance of transparency. Taiwanese and South Korean efforts seem at least as effective as China’s, if not more so.
Keeping the public health professionals and the public sufficiently informed and resourced to undertake meaningful transmission control, while preventing the collapse of public health systems, seem to be key for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Such features of mobilisation, state capacity, and community preparedness go beyond regime distinctions. Open political systems enjoy advantages in transparency, local initiative, and a potential for more humane responses, but these do not substitute for the willingness and ability of public health and medical systems to act. Both authoritarian and democratic systems can succeed or fail on the latter two counts, independent of the former. Crises create incentives to attack the unfamiliar and inconvenient, be they regime type, race, or place of origin, but these claims only distract from a focus on the fundamentals behind the pressing issues at hand.
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