If you want to see bold leadership in the fight against this pandemic, look no further than Turkmenistan, where dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov put his foot down and banned any use, in conversation or print, of the word “coronavirus.”
That ought to take care of the problem.
Mr. Berdymukhamedov may occupy a place on the remote fringes of politics (and of sanity), but he is far from the only politician who would like us to believe that a disease outbreak is best fought by suspending democratic practices and ruling by decree.
There is an unhealthy belief, far too prevalent among otherwise liberal-minded people these days, that democracy is not an effective disinfectant for fighting infection.
It’s not hard to reach this conclusion – after all, citizens are being asked to do things, and sometimes compelled by law, that in normal times would be considered grotesque infringements on personal liberties. A lot of emergency decisions have to be made quickly. Isn’t democracy, with its checks and balances and deliberative processes, just a sluggish hindrance?
That was the case made by Viktor Orban, the far-right president of Hungary, when he persuaded his parliament this week – in which his party already has a two-thirds super-majority – to pass an “emergency” law that suspends all elections and allows him to rule by decree, bypass democratic institutions and courts, and imprison anyone who complains. It has no end date.
It was immediately apparent that these new measures have nothing to do with fighting the virus, which has yet to hit Hungary hard. Mr. Orban included language that made it illegal for people to have a gender different from their biological sex – a hot-button topic on the angry right, but one utterly unrelated to virology.
Mr. Orban already holds extraordinary extralegal powers under another “emergency” law passed in 2015, ostensibly to deal with the European refugee crisis, which barely touched Hungary. It was never repealed.
Democratic leaders have done a better virus-fighting job not by seizing absolute power (like Mr. Orban) or by lying and denying the existence of a pandemic threat for months (like U.S. President Donald Trump or his counterparts in Brazil and the Philippines) but by building their country’s reserves of public trust and co-operation by using transparency, compromise and other democratic values to bring everyone together around this difficult common sacrifice, as we’ve seen in the better moments from Asian and European democracies.
As such, it was welcome to see Canada’s opposition parties fight back against attempts by the governing Liberals, who have an unhealthy preference for governing from the backrooms of the Prime Minister’s Office, to allow economic policy to be passed by emergency decree – and for the Liberals to climb down quickly and open their policies to full parliamentary debate.
Nevertheless, there is an alarming number of otherwise democratic people who have pointed approvingly to China – where opaque authoritarian secrecy allowed the new coronavirus to explode and spread internationally in December and early January, before a harsh crackdown slowed its spread.
There is absolutely nothing to suggest that an epidemic is better fought by non-democratic governments.
In fact, the record shows otherwise. In February, researchers from The Economist used the massive International Disaster Database to examine the death and infection data from all recorded epidemics since 1960 – hundreds of outbreaks in hundreds of countries over six decades. The results are striking: “For any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.”
In democracies with average incomes similar to China’s, epidemics have killed a third fewer people than they have in China and other autocratic states with similar incomes. This “democracy gap” has remained consistent in recent years and under all sorts of epidemics.
“Authoritarian regimes,” the authors conclude, “although able to co-ordinate massive construction projects, may be poorly suited to matters that require the free flow of information and open dialogue between citizens and rulers … . Non-democratic societies often restrict the flow of information and persecute perceived critics.”
The most impressive responses to the virus are not those ordered, belatedly, by Beijing – or by other countries that have followed China’s lead in imprisoning critics and silencing dissent, including Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh and Turkey.
Far more impressive Asian pandemic-fighting results can be observed in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, where democracy was not suspended but rather used as a tool, and infection curves were flattened even better. I see similar results around me in Germany, where the Chancellor used persuasion and public trust to avoid sending police vans immediately onto the streets.
It is, in many ways, the healthier response – both for democracy and for death rates.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.