Mass testing of all 11 million citizens of Wuhan in China has resumed following the emergence of new cases for the first time in more than a year. In 2020, after the virus was first detected in the city and the potential speed and ease of transmission was first understood, the population was subjected to a full lockdown for 76 days. It was so effective that transmission was effectively halted. It was a lesson for the rest of the world in how rapidly it’s possible to react on this scale in a country such as China.
The Chinese government boasts of the advantages of one-party control of the state, arguing that debates and disagreements in democracies stand in the way of effective action and “social harmony”. So what does this mean for how different countries have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic – how have democracies fared in comparison with authoritarian regimes?
To answer this, first it’s necessary to decide what is a democracy and which states are authoritarian. Independent thinktank Freedom House rates the state of democracy around the world by looking at factors such as freedom of speech, the existence of free and fair elections, the right to participate in politics and respect for the rule of law in more than 200 countries and territories.
In a recent report it classified them into three categories: “not free”, “partially free” and “free”. Altogether there were 54 “not free” or authoritarian countries including China and Russia – a number which has increased by nine since 2005. There were 59 “partially free” or semi-authoritarian countries – a rise of one country since the same year. Finally 82 countries qualified as “free” or democracies – down by seven over the 15-year period.
As regards the effects of the pandemic the Freedom House report concluded that: “Since it spread around the world in early 2020, COVID-19 has exacerbated the global decline in freedom.”
Some 18 months into the pandemic, we can now test the claim of the superiority of authoritarian regimes over democracies in managing the pandemic. Data on COVID cases from the World Health Organization (WHO) provides information on how effective different states and territories have been in dealing with the pandemic. The WHO provides data on the cumulative number of cases and the total number of deaths per 100,000 population in each state or territory since the start of the pandemic.
A useful measure of the performance of different countries in handling the pandemic is the percentage of cases ending up in deaths. If a large proportion of the cases result in deaths, this may mean that a country is performing poorly in managing the pandemic. To illustrate this, the WHO data published on July 20 showed that the United States had 10,194 cases and 182 deaths per 100,000 population.
So the percentage of deaths per cases was 1.8%. In contrast – and despite the point made earlier – the Chinese death rate was 4.7%, more than two and a half times larger than the US. This raises the question: are authoritarian states really more effective than democracies in handling the pandemic?
Many factors explain these variations in death rates, reflecting geography, population density, standards of living and inequality. But the quality of governance and the state of democracy are also important. The WHO categorises all countries and territories into six geographical regions and the figure below shows the ratio of deaths to cases in each of them:
COVID deaths by region (%)
Clearly, southeast Asian and western Pacific countries did best in controlling the death rates – the latter including China. Interestingly Africa, the Americas and Europe had rather similar death rates. In contrast, the eastern Mediterranean region stands out clearly as the worst of all. This region contains failed states such as Sudan, as well as countries wracked by internal wars such as Syria and Iraq. Not surprisingly, war really weakens a state’s response to COVID. The worst case in that region – and indeed in the world as a whole – was Yemen, with a death rate of 19.6%.
These averages conceal large variations. In Africa the Seychelles had a death rate of 0.4%, whereas in Tanzania it was 4.7%. Similarly, in the Americas, Cuba had a rate of 0.7% and so dealt with COVID much better than Peru at 9.3%. In Europe, the best performing territory was the Faroe Islands, close to Denmark, at 0.1%, and the worst was Bosnia and Herzegovina with a rate of 4.7%. In Britain the rate on July 20 was 0.8%.
COVID and democracy
But what of the relationship between performance in handling the pandemic and democracy? This appears in the graph below, which shows the average death rates in the Freedom House classification. The figure shows that democracies had significantly fewer deaths per 100,000 cases than authoritarian regimes such as China, and semi-authoritarian regimes such as the Philippines.
COVID deaths by political category (%)
An obvious factor which could explain this is that democracies tend to be richer than authoritarian regimes and so these states clearly have the resources to fight COVID which other regimes may lack. But while there is a relationship between per capita GDP or national income and the COVID death rate, it is rather weak. The correlation between these two measures across the world is -0.2 (where a perfect negative relationship between these two would score -1.0 and no relationship at all would score 0). This shows that national income has only a rather modest role in reducing death rates.
Further analysis is needed to explore the many other factors which might be at work in explaining state responsiveness to COVID. But it is fairly clear that countries which have abandoned democracy over the years are not doing their people any favours when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.
Paul Whiteley receives funding from the British Academy and the ESRC.