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Unravelling why some democracies – but not all – are better at fighting pandemics

South Korea has been the quickest to bring the pandemic under control. Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

One of democracy’s strengths is that it allows its critics to complain about it loudly.

The current complaint in South Africa from some commentators and many voices on social media claims that the coronavirus pandemic shows that democracy does not protect people from pandemics.

China, we are told, has beaten the disease. Western Europe and North America have not. Perhaps because they are preoccupied with their own disaster, the rich countries of the North no longer lead efforts to help others fight the virus: that role has shifted to non-democracies or countries whose democratic credentials are questioned such as China, Cuba and Turkey.

The obvious conclusion is that South Africa (and, presumably, other African countries), would do well to ditch democracy.

But the evidence thus far might point in the opposite direction: that countries with stronger democracies do best at dealing with the pandemic.

The most obvious problem with claims that some countries – or political systems – are better at fighting the virus is that it will be quite a while before we know who did well and who did not. Because the pandemic is nowhere near over, we have no idea how many people in each country will contract COVID-19 or how many lives it will claim.

We don’t even know yet whether China has beaten it: new infections are being reported and there are fears of another outbreak.

When the disease is contained and we have final figures, research may show that some countries did better than others for reasons which have nothing to do with how they fought the pandemic.

But, even if we base our judgements on the evidence we have now, and concentrate only on countries which are agreed to be democratic or non-democracies, the claim that democracy has been found wanting does not stand up.

Measuring performance

At this stage, China is the only non-democracy which has some claim to have beaten back the pandemic. It is too early to tell whether others, such as Cuba, will do this.

But precisely because it is not a democracy, China first covered up the virus outbreak, which helped it to spread.

The accolade for handling the epidemic the best must go to South Korea: in Daegu, the epicentre of the virus, on April 10, for the first time since the virus appeared, no new cases were reported. But its greatest success so far is that, at the time of writing, just over 200 people have died of the disease, a spectacular achievement compared with most other countries. And South Korea is, of course, a democracy.

South Korea is not the only democracy to have made headway against it. Portugal has lost only 535 people in a population of 10 million at the time of writing.

New Zealand, whose prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is seen by many as a democratic role model, has lost one person out of a population of almost 5 million. Mexico may be next to the US geographically, but is nowhere near it in COVID-19 deaths: only 332 in a population of 129 million. In Greece, only 99 people out of 10 million have lost their lives.

These examples show that democracies can – and do – cope with the virus. There are far more democratic than non-democratic success stories.

But not all democracies are doing well. So, why are some doing better than others?

Right-wing nationalism

A clear reason is that some countries are run by right-wing nationalists to whom protecting people does not come naturally. A clear lesson we can draw already is that the nationalist right is terrible at dealing with pandemics.

The stand-out is Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who is exhorting people to ignore the health measures introduced by provincial governors. US president Donald Trump has done far more to hinder than help the fight against COVID-19: Brazilians and Americans have probably been saved from a far worse fate by the fact that the federal system allows governors to protect their populations when the president won’t.

Britain is battling because its government embraced a bizarre theory which suggested that the best way to fight the virus was to allow up to 80% of the population to become infected. India’s Narendra Modi initiated a hasty and punitive lockdown which has done more damage than the virus.

None of them may pay a political price for their folly. But the myth that the nationalist right cares about “the people” has been shattered.

A more complicated reason may be that the democracies that do better are those in which citizens have reason to feel they are part of the political system. In South Korea, only two years ago, citizens achieved the removal of a president accused of corruption.

In New Zealand, Portugal and Mexico, the current governments are seen by many citizens as a sign that the system can produce change. Greece’s government is newly elected and has handed over the fight against the virus to a medical specialist who has won huge support by seeming to speak for people rather than at them.

So, it may well be that the democracies which do best against COVID-19 are those whose citizens feel part of the system.

South Africa seems to illustrate this strongly.

Insiders and outsiders

South Africa is divided sharply between insiders, who benefit from the formal economy and live mainly in the suburbs of large cities, and outsiders who are excluded from the economy’s benefits and live in poor townships and shack settlements.

So far, its response to the virus has seemed to work well among the insiders who have, in the main, rallied around a national effort to beat back the disease.

It has done less well among the outsiders whose circumstances make it very difficult to comply with restrictions and have been on the wrong end of sometimes heavy-handed police attempts to enforce them. Some have been victims of evictions, implausibly styled as attempts to fight COVID-19.

Insiders may often complain about the government but they trust the political system and participate in it enthusiastically. Outsiders live at its fringes, often connected to the system only when they vote.

The message seems clear. It is not all democracies which struggle to deal with the virus; it is those in which the people do not feel that the system works for them.

In South Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, the lesson is surely clear. Governments need to develop far deeper roots into their societies if they are to meet citizens’ needs. This will be true long after the virus has been contained.

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