Sunday

27th Sep 2020

Column

Only democracy can fight epidemics

The world has turned upside down in the last two weeks, at least that's how it feels in Europe.

Accustomed to slow and complex political decision-making, our governments have been thrown into a whirlwind of risks in which they make fateful decisions within hours in a fog of half-known or unknown facts.

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While governments battle the epidemic, a parallel battle for our hearts and minds is taking shape.

President Donald Trump, trying to deflect blame from his poor leadership, calls it the "China-virus".

The Chinese government and media claim that the virus started in Italy or that it was invented by the US military, and it indulges in self-praise.

In the words of its foreign minister: "Only in China and only under the leadership of president Xi can there be such effective measures to put this sudden and fast-spreading epidemic under control."

This is more than a battle of egos. China is trying to convince the world that its authoritarian model is the future: the system that can decisively act – build hospitals in a week, eradicate a virus – whereas freedom-loving democracies dither and fail.

But have they?

Japan, South-Korea and Taiwan are praised for their effective response to Corona.

They are democracies. Some may say that Asian democracies are different, its citizens more disciplined and accepting of authority. But these are clichés that do not explain anything.

Many Asian countries badly mismanaged the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, despite their supposed discipline. Then they learned their lessons and prepared better.

The reason why Europe failed to address the coronavirus early is neither cultural nor has it to do with democracy.

Europe simply lacked political and social 'immunity' to an epidemic, because it had not experienced one for 100 years. It clearly did not take this seriously enough when it started. We can be sure that Europe will look much closer and prepare much better when the next emerging epidemic is reported.

Europeans are as disciplined these days as citizens of authoritarian states. Most people comply with the drastic reduction of freedoms because they are convinced it is necessary, not because they are forced to do so.

Democratic constitutions include provisions, like states of emergency, that allow restriction in responses to exceptional danger.

Democracies are not defenceless

Furthermore, as I argued before, the idea that democracies and Europe in particular are the epicentre of the pandemic is an optical illusion.

Most high-income democracies have effective health systems that test systematically and therefore identify more cases. Many other undemocratic governments report implausible numbers.

Russia claims to have no more cases than Luxembourg. China's trumpets the number "zero", which makes for good public relations. But it stopped counting infected people who do not show symptoms.

Democracy is not the problem; lack of democracy is. It lies at the origin of the corona virus.

After the SARS epidemic China too had established an efficient early warning system to quickly detect new viruses. But then authoritarian politics got in the way of a good system.

Chinese doctors, who talked about the virus were harassed and told to remain silent. Precious time was lost.

Taiwan's government, which had heard informally about the virus, started checking plane passengers from Wuhan from 31 January onwards.

But the authorities in Wuhan suppressed reporting of new cases in order not to disturb a session of the local people's congress. Wuhan's main newspaper did not mention the virus on its front page for two weeks.

As late as 14 January the WHO indicated – based on information provided by the Chinese government – that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.

The authorities only locked down the city on 21 January.

The Chinese government claims that early inaction was due to inept local officials, and that the situation was solved once the central government got involved.

However, the problem isn't local: it's structural. In an authoritarian regime, nobody dares step out of line without cover from the top. The fear of retribution for speaking the truth is part of the system.

China then did many things right and Europeans should be grateful for its support now.

But the Chinese government's triumphalism is misplaced. Its attempts to blame the US or Italy are as undignified of a superpower as are Trump's endless lies. Chinese citizens and the world are paying a steep price for a lack of free media and proper checks and balances in China.

The incompetent US response to the virus also has to do with democracy deficits, in particular its severe polarisation. The US has no balanced public broadcasting. News consumption is divided along partisan lines.

President Trump's voters mostly watch Fox News, which played down the epidemic for many weeks. Trump's nonsense statements on the virus did not carry a political price as long as his voters believed him. They only changed their tone when it had spread into communities and simply could not be denied anymore.

The lack of democracy in many countries will bedevil future efforts to fight epidemics.

Where citizens have no reason to trust their governments, as is the case in Iran, panic spreads or warnings are not taken seriously. Quick action based on transparent information is the key to suppressing an emerging health threat.

It is very difficult to independently verify information provided by authoritarian regimes. Compare that to the US. President Trump may lie as much as he wants, but not only do government agencies in the US publish their data without him interfering, independent media also enables everybody to verify and double-check information.

If democracy is not to blame for Corona, what does the virus do to democracy?

The most obvious risk are the "states of emergencies" being called in many countries. International law and democratic constitutions put restrictions on how to impose a state of emergency.

They should be proportional and as limited as possible in time and geographic reach as possible. Many governments ignore such limitations.

The Hungarian government proposes a carte blanche law under which the government could do whatever it thinks it needs to do for as long as it wants to do so. Criminal sanctions can be imposed for public statements that can 'create confusion'.

Compare that to Portugal, which also called a state of emergency. The decree is limited to 14 days and lists in great detail what the government can do during this period. It explicitly states that freedom of expression cannot be restricted in any way.

Beyond the medical emergency, this may be the biggest challenge of this crisis: governments abusing the situation to concentrate power, further reducing democracy.

Authoritarian governments are insecure about their legitimacy, because they are not freely elected.

They perceive every crisis primarily as one of political survival rather than focusing on solving the problem at hand.

A world of authoritarian governments will be even less prepared for the next challenge than we are now.

As Li Wenliang, the deceased Chinese doctor who was reprimanded for reporting on the virus, said: "There should be more openness and transparency".

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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