Tag Archives: Democracy

Democracy in a Time of Crisis: Part II

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.

Taiwan Metro Commuters wearing face masks. Source: ChannelNewsAsia

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.

Source: Flickr

Authoritarian states can’t protect us. They only give a &#@ck about their own survival.

Democracy in a Time of Crisis

The Chinese government’s draconian response to the coronavirus outbreak begs a question. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage, relative to democracies, in responding to crises?

A brief refresher on democracy. A form of government “in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)   

A brief refresher on the Coronavirus quarantine. Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a quarantine that severely restricts travel into and out of an area with a population the size of California. 

Chinese Police with Face Masks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview with Scientific American, NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan upheld the measure as necessary for containing the spread of the disease. In addition, he noted the legal hurdles that might prevent such a measure in the United States. 

“But quarantining an entire large city—or multiple cities—is not an approach that would work in many other places. You’re not going to quarantine the city of New York, ever,” Caplan argues, noting that U.S. authorities could not even effectively enforce a quarantine imposed on one nurse who returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone in 2014. “ 

The last sentence refers to the quarantine attempted on Kari Hickox. Upon her return to the states from West Africa, where she had treated Ebola patients, Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before being permitted to return to Maine. The Maine authorities tried to extend Hickox’ quarantine but Hickox took legal action and won.  

(Hickox was neither infected with Ebola nor showed any symptoms).

There aren’t many other recent examples of an industrialized democracy dealing with a pandemic (though the US imposed a fair number of quarantines in the 19th-century: more on this later). 

However, democratic systems have stumbled in confronting the multitude of crises currently facing humanity. 

Take climate change. In the United States, older, more conservative constituencies support politicians who deny its very existence despite the numerous signs that it is indeed happening.

Even lefties in the US and Europe who claim to care about climate change are loath to take measures to restrict vehicle travel (e.g. ending parking minimums, raising gas taxes) that would actually make a dent in emissions. 

Contentious Hearing on a Road Diet in Los Angeles. “Road Diets”, which reallocate road space from cars to transit and non-motorized travel, have faced fierce opposition on Los Angeles’ west side. Source: Argonaut

What’s happening here? 

In a government where politicians are responsive to the people, prudent action can be hampered by imperfect information, groupthink (i.e. voting based on social identity rather than substantive issues), and lack of political knowledge. Differing levels of political participation not only take the “democratic” out of democracy (as practiced) but allow well-connected minorities to hamper actions that would benefit the populace at large.

And yet, China’s response to the Coronavirus shows that authoritarian systems, in all likelihood, do a worse job of handling crises.

In the first days of the outbreak, the Wuhan provincial government dragged its feet, going so far as to threaten a doctor who reported the first cases of the virus. 

Such misinformation may reflect authoritarian governments’ prioritization of (the facade of) stability over public welfare. They can solidify legitimacy this way (and always have a golden escape parachute in case things get out of control).

In fact, the Chinese government is already sending people back to work, despite acknowledging that the virus is still an issue.

Furthermore, the quarantine may not actually have been the most effective measure. By concentrating persons (both healthy and sick) in a disease-ridden area, it could end up increasing the infection rate in these areas. Restrictions on the flow of goods into and out of quarantine areas create shortages in medicines those infected desperately need. Democratic oversight on this policy would have probably warranted consideration of these issues.

Point being, democracies have stronger incentives and improved feed-back mechanisms for protecting public well-being in times of crisis. How can democracies respond to voters without being beholden to voters’ imperfections, or to the narrow interests of a loud minority?

I wonder how improving the spread of knowledge from expert sources can better inform voters (something social media could aid, if willing to referee). Bringing more people into the democratic process dampens interest group politics, if the focus is on achieving outcomes rather than fighting battles.

Women’s March, January 2017.

Thoughts?