Nearly a month ago, I pondered whether democratic governments could respond to COVID-19 as effectively as authoritarian China. I hypothesized that democratic governments are better equipped to handle COVID-19 due to public feedback mechanisms (like voting and free speech) and their prioritization of public welfare, but may still be handicapped by public misinformation and interest group politics.
Now, with much of the world shut down by the virus, my hypothesis seems to be bearing out.
The US and European democracies have largely failed to contain the outbreaks. Underestimation of the virus’ risk (by politicians as much as the general public) and misinformation by right-wing partisans (following President Trump’s talking points) led “western” leaders to ignore the virus’ spread within their borders, until it was too late to contain or mitigate an outbreak.
By contrast, East Asian industrial democracies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have led the way in preventing or containing the virus’ spread.
In stark contrast to the authoritarian mainland, Democratic Taiwan swiftly took action following the first reports of the virus in Wuhan.
In December 2019, Taiwan authorities began screening passengers on every flight arriving from Wuhan. Taiwan soon followed up by enforcing two-week quarantines of passengers arriving from infected countries using mobile tracking devices. Partitions in schools and cafeterias and universal mask-wearing ensured that social distancing was maintained without shutting down the economy. The government nationalized private factories to ramp up mask production, while simultaneously rationing distribution, to ensure an adequate supply for the nation’s citizenry.
Taiwan currently has only 169 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while the US has over 24,000.
Unlike Taiwan, South Korea, had a large outbreak of COVID-19 in February, with more than 8,000 cases by the end of the month. But through aggressive testing and quarantine measures, the country brought the outbreak under control, with little growth in cases in the last two weeks. Like Taiwan, South Korea has used cell phone tracking to monitor the movement and location of confirmed COVID-19 patients.
In both countries, governments have fought COVID-19 by partially infringing on certain citizens’ privacy and property rights. But they have done so in a trustworthy manner (e.g. Taiwan’s cell phone monitoring program is authorized solely for public health purposes) and with the support of their populations.
At the same time, Taiwanese authorities have been remarkably open in sharing case data with the public. Coherent messaging and $100K fines on fake news facilitate public trust in the authorities.
Democracies do respond swiftly to crises-when citizenry are willing to make a few sacrifices for the common good, and when governments earn citizens’ trust through honest and effective communication.
A democratic government with the capacity and desire to maintain its citizens’ safety will contain the crisis and marshal popular support.
Contrast that with the response of President Trump, the first true “authoritarian” president of the United States.
First he denied the pandemic, then he downplayed it (hoping to preserve a facade of stock market growth), and finally–once it was too problematic to ignore–he declared war, while blatantly lying about the previous cover-up.
Authoritarian states can’t protect us. They only give a &#@ck about their own survival.