Authoritarian governments and COVID-19

The turn of a new decade saw the world come to a standstill as we witnessed the global spread of COVID-19. Due to the globalised nature of the world the novel virus initially discovered in Wuhan, China spread rapidly across the globe transcending state borders and control. While governments of all states are reacting to the pandemic and battling the virus in various ways, a debate has arisen that authoritarian governments are better suited and more effective with dealing with a crisis as illustrated by the pandemic. This short article will explore this question and why it isn’t exactly the case nor the full picture despite authoritarian governments like China implementing effective policies which has translated to success in tackling coronavirus.

Authoritarianism denotes any form of government that concentrates power within the hands of a leader or a small elite; power is centralised. It is characterised by little to no opposition, it lacks political plurality and protests, or opposition parties are often shut down by those in charge. China is one of the few states who have subscribed to this model of governing and have sustained it for over half a century. Citizens in China have limited political and individual freedom often in exchange for order and authority. There is often a lack of transparency, little accountability, and legitimacy. The Chinese government are rarely held accountable as they have control over all branches of government, the military, judiciary, and the media.

China’s response in tackling COVID-19 has been highly praised by the World Health Organisation. This is because China implemented a series of policies to contain the virus in one geographical area; Wuhan and the surrounding provinces were immediately put into lockdown, ‘760 million people, half the country’s population, were confined to their homes.’ They reallocated resources and funds into building new specialised hospital and masks which has all contributed to the success of China’s response to the virus. Therefore, since April 2020 china has had zero COVID-19 deaths in comparison to the UK and the US. However, we should be wary of China’s figure due to the elusive nature of their government and their history of withholding and giving inaccurate information to protect their image and promote their chosen narrative, they have a censored media in comparison to democracies who have better free press; the government are also more transparent and are held more accountable through various means of checks and balances.

This leads to the argument that the implementation of these policies could only be done quickly because of the authoritative nature of China’s government. This is because they are willing to sacrifice and put larger constraints on individual freedoms. They have an extensive surveillance system and an effective national system of contact tracing. In comparison, soon after the UK was hit by the pandemic, its contact tracing failed and was swiftly overwhelmed. Due to the lack of checks and balances policy processes are faster, the government can redivert and pool resources and production for an instant response, unlike democratic countries where the procedure is longer. Furthermore, China has a mindset of working for the collective good which has been ingrained in their culture and values, putting society above the individual. Plus, the memory of SARS is still alive, this has allowed China to have greater control and influence over its people and its citizens are more willing to follow the rules put in place. It further suggests that an authoritarian government alone cannot be credited for the success in tackling the virus but instead it is the combination of many factors and policies

This provides the framework that it’s not the political makeup of a government that determines its success with tackling COVID-19 but a mixture of factors and policies that are implemented. For instance, China and Taiwan; they share similar characteristics like their culture, ethnicity, their values as well as a history of SARS, but the main difference is Taiwan’s government is democratically elected. Yet Taiwan has also seen success in their policies in dealing with COVID-19, so the number of new cases and death remain low. Having a fast and efficient response is one of the advantages of authoritarianism but Taiwan disproves this with their proactive measures like ‘distributing 6.5 million masks, 84,000 litres of hand sanitizer and 25,000 forehead thermometers.’ Taiwan’s government introduced a travel ban from and to China and developed efficient surveillance and a track and trace programme. This does bring up concerns over privacy however there has been little objection from its citizens because of how transparent the government has been with the public, which has fostered trust. Contact tracing has been more accepted in many east Asian states like South Korea and Japan. Also, unlike authoritarian regimes, Taiwan quickly introduced a welfare programme for citizens that were affected, this incentivized citizens to willingly self-quarantine, report symptoms and not fear the loss of their livelihood.

This transparency has not only helped Taiwan, but the rest of the world has also benefitted. Taiwan has been very generous in openly sharing its expertise, experience, and recommendations in fighting the pandemic. Whereas China has tried to spread misinformation and obscure the details available. For instance, the CCP has made it that all recent studies that investigate the source of the virus are required to be approved and consented by the government. This new rule may obstruct future attempts to avoid the transmission of a similar disease. There are many more examples of democratic countries dealing with coronavirus successfully like New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan; authoritarians are not superior to democracies in crisis response. Moreover, not all authoritarian regimes have been dealing with the pandemic well, Iran is now facing their third wave of coronavirus and the number of people dying from COVID-19 in Iran as of November 2020 is 459 like the UK despite both countries having drastically different political system.

To conclude, the political makeup of a state does not play a huge role in determining the success of overcoming major crises; the novel virus which came unexpectedly proves this. The global pandemic has illustrated that success lies in implementing relevant policies, how efficiently and quickly it was carried out, to mobilise resources and people to where it was needed, the culture and mindsets of the people and the trust they have in their governments and institutions. None of these factors can take sole credit as it was the combination of all these paired with efficient governing as illustrated in both authoritarian and democratic states.

Nazrana Islam, BA (Hons) Politics and International Relations



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