A year into the pandemic: Why did democracy win?

A mock ballot shown with shaded boxes.

Going back to November of 2019, when the very first cases of COVID-19 started popping up in mainland China, the push by many in various parts of the world was for more democratic societies. Most notable was the youth-lead grassroots movement in Hong Kong, which led to protests against the extradition law that was imposed by China on Hong Kong citizens. The movement’s goal was to protest the laws put on them with one main objective: to protect civil liberties. Hong Kong was one example of many.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate of authoritarianism vs. democracy begins to rise on how each handled this world public health crisis. Although some could argue that authoritarian states did have a tighter grip on public health policy, which in turn helped to manage the pandemic, I do think that this point of view does not reflect the whole true image.

At first glance, when looking at the pandemic and how has it been handled around the world on a broader picture, we do see that democratic states like the United Kingdom are still having a very hard time fighting the virus and its variants. Deaths and infection rates are skyrocketing, which shows how badly the pandemic was handled there. In the United States, the slow response by the democratically elected officials also produced record-breaking infection rates and deaths. The same thing applies for most Western democratic states like Italy, Belgium, Spain and many more.

Failures also can be pointed out in authoritarian regimes when comparing cases, deaths, and infection rates, such as states like Iran, where the virus spread very dynamically and quickly, and even in China, the place where the virus was born. The Chinese government failed to contain the spread in the Hubei province and across the whole country, even with some dictatorial laws and regulations.

Three major successful stories stand out to me from all others, and they are Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia, each with true and strong democratic systems lead by public figures that believe in science and encourage public trust in their states. Taiwan had less than one thousand total cases and only nine deaths in the whole country. New Zealand is similar, with very few cases, high recovery rates and a very low number of deaths when compared to others. On the other hand, Australia had more cases than the other two, at about 25,000 cases total, while surviving two waves of COVID-19 with far fewer restrictions and regulations than any other country which faced two waves of the virus. Other success stories similar to the Australian version were the Nordic countries, which survived many waves without heavy restrictions and lockdowns.

Democracy can be understood in three main levels: firstly as a membership organization, secondly as a mode of government, and finally as a culture. Implementing and encouraging all three together will lead to successful democratic stories, resulting in democratic officials that will draw on high levels of public trust and an outcome similar to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia. Strong democracies proved their effectiveness while dealing with this public health crisis on a broader level.

In addition to looking at this topic on a broader view, there is a more logical comparison to be made. One true logical measure can be acquired to compare how authoritarianism and democracy were on government action, as it sometimes can be limited and affected by various factors. One measure that is purely dependent on government action was “testing.” One recent study has found that democratic states have far more testing numbers and testing strategies than authoritarian ones. Many factors can be hard to exclude, especially when it comes to natural resources and high-wealth states, as authoritarianism may create special conditions in pandemic management due to those available resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic will forever stay in the history books as a pandemic that changed humanity and opened the eyes of many to flaws that we do have in our lives. It may have revealed holes in many democracies and showed appeal to some for authoritarian regimes and models. However, I conclude by reminding you all of one of Winston Churchill’s famous quotes about democracy, even though I personally do not agree with many things that Churchill had done in the past. But this quote still resonates in our time now: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

1 Petersen, German. (2020). Democracy, Authoritarianism, and COVID-19 Pandemic Management: The Case of SARS-CoV-2 Testing. 10.33774/apsa-2020-wbhfk-v2.

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