“Diseases like covid-19 are deadlier in non-democracies,” ran a headline in The Economist in mid-February. The statement came at a time when authorities in China were deliberately misleading the world about the serious toll of the coronavirus in their country. Not until almost a month later did the World Health Organization (WHO) label what was occurring a pandemic. By then, three months after the outbreak of the virus, it was already too late for most countries to take strong measures to protect their people from serious illness and death. The WHO had taken Beijing’s false reports as fact, ignoring warnings from doctors and scientists around the world—including Li Wenliang, a thirty-four-year-old physician in China who was detained for “putting public in danger.” He was forced to sign a letter that he was “making false comments” and “severely disturbed the social order.” In early February, he lost his life when infected by the virus while he was saving the lives of others. Six weeks after his death, Chinese authorities apologized to his family about their earlier improper response and treatment, but it was too late for Wenliang and the rest of the world.
Other authoritarian governments around the world have also concealed the truth about how their people have suffered. Many claimed for weeks, against the logic of geographic spread, that they had no cases of COVID-19 in their countries. In Turkey, a government-friendly media outlet, HaberTurk, boasted on March 10 that Turkish “supergenes” had foiled the virus, even as nations on its border reported a rising number of infections and deaths. We may never know what really happened where such authoritarians rule.
A crisis like this is a gift to autocrats. It gives them an excuse to expand and deepen their power and authority. The Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of COVID-19 so far. He took the opportunity to use the law as a weapon against anybody who disagreed with him. The Hungarian parliament, with his party in the majority, voted at the end of March to suspend its operations, and Orbán has the power indefinitely extend the country’s state of emergency, rule-by-decree, to jail anyone he believes to be spreading “false” information about the virus. Those emergency powers were officially rescinded in June, but with legislation that codifies many of the new powers Orbán assumed in the preceding months.
Under autocratic regimes, there is no such thing as public money. The central bank of the country operates as the autocrat’s own bank account, and the wealth of people and state is seen as their wealth. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continuously asked people to donate to the state during this difficult time and banned local authorities from holding separate donation campaigns His regime then handed out small checks of 1,000 Turkish lira (about $144) at end of March, embossed with his own signature, in city centers where thousands of desperate people gathered to receive them—a risky step that spread infection. The propaganda boost was more important than the effect on people’s lives. In addition, while most Turks found it difficult to find any medical supplies, the regime practiced “medical mask diplomacy”—filling a plane to send the precious face coverings to Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and other nations. Only national government has the authority to give any numbers or information about COVID-19 infections and deaths, silencing local authorities such as governors, mayors, doctors, and civil organizations.
This behavior is not just typical of authoritarian regimes. Aspects of it occur in democratic regimes, where the ruler does not make the law, and journalists can still ask critical questions. But a leader with autocratic ambitions may use and abuse state power for their own interests. Donald Trump is the most prominent example of this tendency—with his defiance of congressional subpoenas, building his wall with Mexico without an appropriation from lawmakers, and calling any media outlet that criticizes him “Fake News.” His absurd claim in March that the virus was “under control” hampered the government’s response, which led the United States to have one of the worst outbreaks in any place around the world. Earlier this month, the Trump administration launched an effort to discredit the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, seemingly because Dr. Fauci was more trusted than the president himself—a direct echo of the sort of personality politics that play out under autocrats in other countries around the world.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated how the divide between democracies and autocracies affects the lives of people in both types of societies. By March, most democratic countries were issuing reliable reports of cases and deaths, taking important and meaningful measures against the disease, and holding daily press meetings with journalists, while scientists kept the public informed in a variety of media. Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand—democratic countries, many of which are coincidentally ruled by female leaders—acted with particular effectiveness and transparency. Despite their proximity to China, South Korea’s early humanistic and scientific approach protected its people; so far, the country has seen fewer than 300 deaths caused by COVID-19. New Zealand and Taiwan suffered only a handful of deaths each. All have so far been more successful in keeping the virus under control than other countries with autocratic rulers, or would-be autocrats like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Authoritarian governance is like a virus. It can spread very quickly and endangers the life of weak democracies. Even the most advanced democratic regimes are not fully safe against authoritarian lies, fabricated statistics, and nationalist populism. When weak democracies endure crises, many people can go along to support unimaginable choices. Currently, many democracies, including the United States, face these sorts of conditions. And as recent trends in demonstrate, borders do not contain the influence of populist authoritarianism.
“What we learn in time of pestilence: there are more things to admire in men than to despise,” said Albert Camus in The Plague. The tide of authoritarianism under pandemic conditions isn’t inevitable; people can fight to keep or build humane democracies and habits of the heart. As long as people care for social rights, free society, scientific knowledge, and truth—as long as they do not easily believe the lies of autocrats—they remain a buffer against demagogues who wrap themselves in falsehoods in order to maintain their power.
Latif Tas is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton for 2019-2020, and a Marie-Curie Global Fellow. His upcoming book will be titled Authoritarianism and Revolt.