___Pandemics, Democracies & Dictatorships

By: Nader Hashemi //
Highlands Ranch, CO 2 April 2020

Nader Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and teaches Middle East and Islamic politics at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy and co-editor of The People Reloaded, The Syria Dilemma and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

statue of liberty with a mask on
Lady Liberty wears a mask.

This talk was originally aired on https://www.alternativeradio.org/ & aired on KTSW 89.9 in San Marcos, Tx, where I heard it in my car one morning in April.

This transcript was purchased & is being shared here because it’s one of the best discussions on democracy & authoritarianism that I have ever heard. 

Q&A added at the end.


The question that I want to pose and then answer is the following: Are authoritarian regimes or authoritarian governments better equipped than democracies to handle the many challenges that flow from a global pandemic?

Let me just say something about this particular historical moment. Three months ago no one knew or had ever heard of the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19. Now this virus has spread to almost the entire globe. It has crashed economies, it has broken healthcare systems, it has filled hospitals and emptied public spaces, it has separated people from their workplaces, from their friends, and from their families, and it has disrupted modern society on a scale that we’ve never witnessed before. It’s difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this particular historical moment, because we are in the middle of it, but I do believe this is a transformative moment in global history. The coronavirus pandemic really has changed our world, and there will be no going back to the world that we once knew prior to the emergence of this virus.

Yesterday the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said that the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge facing the world since World War II. He said that it could bring a global recession that has no parallel with the recent past, and you just have to look at the numbers around the world to appreciate this point.

We were warned about this coming pandemic for several years. Experts in the field have been saying for a very long time that something like this type of pandemic was inevitable. In recent years there have been hundreds of health experts who have written books, essays, articles, given speeches, warning of the possibility of a crisis like this. Just to single out one person, Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen that a global pandemic was inevitable. In 2015, if you look at his famous TED talk that’s available on YouTube, he was incredibly forward- looking and prescient in warning about this particular crisis. If only we had listened to him back then.

I think this crisis that we are facing challenges fundamental core assumptions about the world that we live in, about international affairs. It forces us to rethink key concepts, such as what really constitutes international security, it forces us to rethink the concept of sovereignty, it forces us to think about in a much deeper way the idea and the notion of international cooperation, the value of human rights, particularly in the context of what constitutes good public health. Also, this crisis forces us to rethink fundamental notions of good and responsible government.

Writing in The Guardian newspaper recently, David Runciman has written, “This crisis has revealed some very hard truths. National governments really matter, and it really matters which one you happen to be living under. Though the pandemic is a global phenomenon and is being experienced similarly in many different places, the impact of the disease is greatly shaped by decisions taken by individual governments.” This forces us to turn our attention to the broad relationship between politics and this pandemic.

I want to say at the outset, I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m not a physician, I’m not a virologist. My training is in political science with a focus on the Muslim world, the Middle East, and the Islamic world, focusing on questions of democracy, authoritarianism, human rights, and struggles for democracy in the Muslim world. I want to really grapple with this fundamental question in politics. The relationship between democracy, authoritarianism, and notions of good government.

Recently, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, when he was commenting on this pandemic and the outbreak of the coronavirus, publicly stated that China deserves special praise and commendation for its response to this crisis.

As the new disease grew into a global health crisis, Chinese officials have quarantined entire cities in a matter of days, suspended travel, closed schools and universities, shut down businesses, and imposed strict restrictions on who could leave their homes. In many ways China has set the standard here to what other countries around the world have emulated in terms of dealing with this pandemic. They’ve leveraged their formidable surveillance powers to scale up contact tracing, which is an essential measure in stopping the outbreak. Even Donald Trump, of all people, has Tweeted in praise of China’s “great discipline” in dealing with this crisis. World Health officials have repeatedly praised China’s response.

There was a conference in Munich in February where Michael Ryan, who is the execute director of the World Health Organization’s Emergency Response Program, argued and publicly stated that the people of China today feel protected. “They feel like their government has stepped in aggressively and quickly to protect them,” he said.

During public health crises, governments in the U.S. and other liberal democracies are often forced to consider various measures that require health checks, that require limiting movements, instituting quarantines. 

This often infringes on individual liberties and human rights. It is sometimes argued and believed that in moments of a pandemic liberal governments are not as effective in responding to these moments of crisis. Liberal democracies allegedly have weak governments because they have to respect popular choice and legal procedure.

Some people have suggested that perhaps this recent global crisis reveals that authoritarian governments are better equipped than democracies to meet the challenge of a pandemic. This is, of course, related to a much broader global debate that has been taking place in recent years about the value of democracy in perhaps the appreciation or reconsideration for a more authoritarian style of government. The China model is sometimes discussed, particularly in parts of the Islamic world, as perhaps a better alternative to democracy.

Western democracies, after all, today are in deep crisis. There’s lots of political polarization, lots of confusion, lots of uncertainty. And just look at what’s happening right now in the context of this global pandemic. Look what’s happening in some prominent Western liberal democracies, where the four top countries in the world now who have produced the largest number of cases and deaths are in Western liberal democracies. Italy, Spain, France, and the U.S. top the world in this category while, comparatively speaking, China’s numbers, despite its much larger population, are much lower. Of course, Donald Trump’s mismanagement of this crisis obviously does not reflect positively on democracy or the ability of a democracy to respond effectively to a pandemic.

Some people have argued China, in contrast to the U.S., has really shown some significant global leadership by containing and stopping the outbreak after it first emerged, by sending medical aid and testing kits to countries around the world, by sending surgical masks and other forms of personal protection equipment. In many ways some people have argued that China is now demonstrating global leadership that we need more of than leadership coming from the West, from the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps, some people have argued, one of the lessons of this moment of crisis is the China model, and perhaps we need to rethink the China model and rethink the values of authoritarian government during times of crisis. Take a second look, in other words.

This narrative that I’ve just constructed, let me state very clearly, I strongly disagree with this claim. Opponents of democracy and human rights around the world would very much want us to buy into this narrative. I think it is deeply flawed, deeply disingenuous, deeply ethically weak, and it would be a danger for our world if more countries were to buy into this story. Let me explain why.

Good public health practice doesn’t simply require political control. It also requires transparency, public trust, and social collaboration, habits of mind, in other words, that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics. Citizens of democratic nations can reasonably expect a higher level of honesty, candor, and accountability from their governments as opposed to citizens living in authoritarian regimes.

American citizens, for example, today are benefiting from the objectivity and the accuracy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the CDC. This is a leading public health institute in the U.S. It’s federally funded but it’s independent, and it publishes regular, accurate, and independent information about infectious diseases that can be a critical source of information for citizens trying to figure out and understand what’s going on. The CDC has a long, distinguished history in terms of being a forum for communicating between and with American citizens over these questions of pandemics and infectious diseases. This reliable reporting has enabled epidemiologists in the U.S. today to accurately and honestly, without government interference, predict this disease’s trajectory, it has helped research develop treatments and vaccines and to respond to the transmission of these diseases in ways that protects society at large without having to fear the executive power coming in and trying to manipulate the data.

In contrast, consider the case of China. In 2003, when we had the SARS outbreak, China tried to cover up that story when it first emerged. It’s also trying to do the same thing in the context today of the coronavirus crisis. Local authorities in China deliberately suppressed early reports coming out of Wuhan of some unknown virus that had emerged, missing an early window that responders had to stop this infectious disease before it spread around the world. 

Although researchers in China did eventually release the virus’s genetic sequence, there was a lot of an attempt to cover up what was happening, there was an attempt to detain doctors, to silence whistleblowers who tried to discuss the disease and tried to sound the alarm when the evidence started to emerge in late December of last year. Aggressive action just a week earlier, in, let’s say, early to mid-January, could have cut the number of infections in China by two-thirds, according to a major recent study, whose authors include experts from the Wuhan Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Another study has found that if China had acted earlier, had acted responsibly, it could have controlled the outbreak and it could have prevented 95% of the disease spreading to the entire world.

One of the doctors who was in Wuhan at the time who tried to sound the alarm was Lee Wenliang. He tried to warn friends on the social media service WeChat about this crisis that was emerging, but he was immediately summoned before the authorities of the Chinese Communist Party and he was forced to publicly disavow his concerns. He later died of complications from the COVID-19 virus. When asked on a BBC interview about Li’s treatment by the Chinese authorities, a Chinese diplomat shrugged it off, dismissed it, and tried to blame it on local authorities.

But this is precisely the point. China’s cover-up of the virus was not the result of some system malfunction. In an authoritarian regime the state covers up events and stories that it doesn’t like as a deliberate policy. This is by design; this doesn’t happen by accident. The language of authoritarianism, the language of fear, and the language of force are part of the DNA of authoritarian regimes. In the context of a global pandemic, as we are seeing today, the results of an authoritarian regime relying on those policies can be catastrophic for our entire world.

Let me just sharpen the point and ask the following question. It’s very difficult to imagine a similar cover up taking place in a healthy democracy, that somehow the state would somehow try to arrest doctors, throw them in jail, imprison them, torture them, and force them to come on television to publicly confess that what they were discovering was somehow a hoax. But this happens routinely in authoritarian regimes.

But let me say something a bit more foundational to the question of global pandemics. That revolves around the concept of public trust, or sometimes the concept is known as social trust, and its relationship to pandemics. During a public health crisis a government’s credibility is a vital national asset. To slow the spread of a virus, the government must convincingly inform and instruct the public. And to do so, it must inspire trust among citizens, trust that the government is following the scientific data, that it is acting out of the best interests of the entire population, and that it’s enforcing measures that will help keep the public safe. Trust fundamentally depends on transparency. If governments appear to be lying, concealing the truth, withholding information, their credibility will quickly crumble, and they will be unable to mobilize citizens collectively to do the right thing to deal with the crisis.

Public trust has many dimensions: it’s vertical and it’s horizontal. There is one form of public trust that is fundamentally a relationship between the state, the government and its citizens, but there is also horizontal trust, how citizens view each other, whether they’re fearful of each other, whether they trust each other during a moment of crisis. That’s an important level of trust that can easily be broken if governments are not responsible in doing the right thing.

Recently, in the context of this debate on global pandemics, the prominent American political theorist Francis Fukuyama has weighed in on this debate. He wrote an essay earlier this week in The Atlantic magazine where he argued that we have to discard simple dichotomies when thinking about governments and their response to global pandemics. He argued that the major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies or authoritarian regimes on one side and democracies on the other. Rather, there will be some high-performing autocracies and some with disastrous outcomes. There will be also, in a similar way, some governments in democracies that perform relatively well and some that perform relatively poorly.

The crucial determinant, Francis Fukuyama argued, in performance is not the type of regime but the state’s capacity and, above all, the trust in government. Let me repeat the core aspect of his argument. He says the crucial determinant when we look at global government responses is not the type of regime, democracy or authoritarianism, but whether a particular government has capacity to do the right thing and to instill trust in its citizens.

I want to respond very briefly to this argument because I fundamentally disagree that regime type doesn’t matter. I think that when this crisis is over and when we examine the behavior of democracies in the world and authoritarian regimes in the world to this critical moment that we are facing, the empirical evidence will suggest, all things considered, that democracies have performed better than authoritarian regimes in managing this crisis and in saving lives. Yes, there will always be outlying cases. There will always be the case of Singapore, there will always be the case Qatar, there will always be the case of the United Arab Emirates. But these, I think, are nonrepresentative of most authoritarian governments and how they have responded to this global pandemic.

Point number two. Speaking of social trust in general, when we think about the concept of social trust or public trust, there are typically much higher levels of social trust in democracies than in authoritarian regimes. This is because of the concept of political legitimacy. Regimes and governments that are legitimate in the eyes of their citizens usually have much higher levels of social trust than in authoritarian regimes. Thus, in that sense regime type does profoundly matter when we think about social trust as an important value.

Francis Fukuyama, if you read his essay, is very skeptical about the case of democracies responding better than authoritarian regimes, largely based on the example of Donald Trump and the U.S. I think this is a problem with his argument, because he’s using an example of the U.S., which today is a deeply flawed democracy, I would argue it’s a declining democracy.

He’s trying to make broad generalizations about Donald Trump’s response as a representative of democratic government for his argument.

I would argue, rather than looking at Donald Trump and the U.S. as an example of a democratic response to this global pandemic, what about South Korea, what about Taiwan, what about Germany, what about Canada? I think that those government responses, all of them much more democratic than the U.S.’s, does challenge the claim that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a democracy or it’s an authoritarian regime, it’s really about state capacity.

Some people now will argue, Well, what about the huge loss of life in Italy, Spain, France, and the U.S.? These are leading democracies, at least historically speaking, and look at the huge catastrophe that is unfolding as I speak. I would argue that the loss of life and the number of cases would probably be much greater had these governments been authoritarian rather than democratic. It’s still too early to tell. I think there’s going to be a lot of careful examination of all of these examples moving forward. But I wouldn’t simply look at the data right now and look at the countries that are experiencing high levels of reported cases and high levels of death. In fact, I would argue that the reason there are high levels of cases being reported in these countries is because there is a lot of testing and there is a lot of an attempt by government to get involved and figure out how big the problem is, which is actually a positive reflection on democracies, not really a criticism.

Francis Fukuyama also ignores one of the key lessons from the 1918 pandemic. If you’re following what’s happening today, I strongly recommend that you go and revisit what happened roughly 100 years ago, when we had another pandemic that seems to be similar to what we’re experiencing right now. About 100 years, about 500 million people, one-third of the planet, became infected with a form of influenza which is sometimes known as the Spanish flu or swine flu. The number of deaths that occurred in 1918 as a result of this pandemic was roughly in the range of 50 million people worldwide. In the U.S. the number of people who died was 675,000. That’s more than the number of people who died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan. So it was a major pandemic.

In a major book on this topic that was a New York Times bestseller called The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, the author, John Barry, argues that one of the key lessons from this moment of history is that it is absolutely essential for governments to tell the truth. Truth is directly linked to public trust. The way to could that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try and manipulate no one. When the author was asked about the consequences of lying back in 1918, because that was what was happening—the U.S. Government was still in World War I. It didn’t want to acknowledge the evidence that was emerging that there was a major pandemic on its doorstep, there was a lot of lying and distortion—the consequences of that lying were actually very catastrophic. It led to more deaths.

John Barry, when he was asked about the consequences of lying in the context of a global pandemic, responded with the following comments: 

“Lying was a disaster. People lost faith in everything: in their government, in what they were being told, in each other. It just isolated people even further. If trust collapses, then it becomes everyone for themselves, and that’s the worst instinct in a crisis of this scale. In most disasters communities come together, and that was the sense in some places in the U.S. but not in others.” 

He says, “In my book I wrote about the gradual disintegration of trust at every level of society and the cascading effects it had on social breakdown that resulted from it.”

He also adds that there were some practical consequences. For example, the lack of trust made it harder to implement critical public health measures in a timely way because people just didn’t believe what they were being told by their government, and by the time the government was forced to be transparent about what was going on, it was mostly too late. Hundreds of thousands of people had died, the virus was widely disseminated.

So the lack of trust, the lack of honesty, the lack of telling the truth cost lives. Getting back to our discussion about governments, truth telling, honesty, transparency are not core features of authoritarian regimes. Democracies are much better at telling the truth for obvious reasons: free press, civil society, respect for free speech and inquiry, the existence of an opposition party.

Finally, with respect to this debate on authoritarianism and democracy, let’s not forget a fundamental truth about the crisis that we are facing right now known as the coronavirus pandemic. We are in this mess in large part because of the policies of a deeply authoritarian regime that lied, that distorted, that covered up, and that continues to hide the truth about the origins of this virus and the number of people that have been contaminated by it. I’m talking specifically about the policies of the Chinese Communist Party and its notorious ruler, Xi Jinping. Had China not lied, not arrested doctors who tried to sound the alarm and who tried to contain the virus, arguably we would not be having this conversation, our world would be much different. Thus, regime type profoundly does matter when it comes to dealing with global pandemics.

Let me now quickly turn to the case of Muslim-majority societies. I recently got my research assistant to look up the data on how Muslim societies have been affected by the coronavirus. He looked at all of the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the OIC, and listed the data in terms of the number of reported cases of infected people and the number of deaths. Several things stand out when you look at this particular data.

Number one, Iran is way off the charts. It’s very high in terms of the number of reported cases and the number of deaths. Iran currently has about 50,000 reported cases and about 3,000 dead. Most people who know Iranian politics realize that the figure is probably much higher given the nature of the authoritarian regime in Tehran. But those are the official figures—50,000 cases, 3,000 dead. The other thing that stands out is the next country that registers cases and death is much lower, Turkey. Turkey officially has about 15,000 cases of infections, about 277 deaths as of today. Malaysia is third, about 3,000 infections, 45 people who have died. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are much lower—about 2,000 reported cases and about two dozen dead.

This raises some very interesting questions. What about the most populous Muslim-majority countries? How come they have not registered? They don’t appear on the global data for coronavirus infections or deaths: Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Egypt, Nigeria. The numbers are almost infinitesimal. If you look at the data on a global scale, it’s as if these countries have almost been unaffected by this virus.

I think the only explanation that one can come to is actually quite a tragic and catastrophic explanation. It means that the level of testing has been very low, that the virus is just beginning to spread, and that what we’re seeing today in the U.S., in Italy, in Spain, in France is going to hit the countries of the Global South, of the developing world, many of Muslim-majority societies, in catastrophic ways in the coming months. 

There’s a lot to be concerned about here, because I think the worst is yet to come to these countries.

Let me just say something in the end briefly about Iran. I think Iran is a perfect example of the argument that I’ve just outlined. The reason Iran is in this deep crisis is fundamentally because of the nature of government there, the nature of its political system, which is authoritarian. It badly mismanaged, it badly mishandled this crisis from the beginning. The former health minister of Iran was sounding the alarm in late December that something was happening with China, we have to take precautions. No one listened to him.

The reason no one listened to him was because Iran was facing an internal political and foreign policy crises. In January and February Iran was engulfed in a series of events related to public protests, related to the conflict with the U.S, related to the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, and related to the broader fact that the Iranian regime suffers from an internal crisis of legitimacy. There’s been a lot of mistrust, a lot of questions about whether the ruling clerics have popular legitimacy.

The focus of the regime in the month of February was not on fighting this pandemic. The focus of the regime was trying to shore up its sagging legitimacy around two important events that happened to coincide in the month of February. One was the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, which is a huge moment when the regime tries to bring people out into the streets to send the message to the world that it has popular support, so that was the focus of the regime. And then around two weeks later there were parliamentary elections, and the regime again was trying to encourage people to come to the ballot boxes after they had screened most of the candidates and had created a situation that was a very fraudulent election, so people didn’t want to show up. In fact, the Iran supreme leader came pretty close to acknowledging this fact when he said one of the reasons there was such low voter turnout in the parliamentary election was because of these exaggerated fears of a virus.

So if you look at how the government in Iran has responded to this crisis, it’s fundamentally a feature of the authoritarian nature of the regime in Iran, the fact that it suffers from a crisis of legitimacy, the fact that its supreme leader in late March went on television and engaged in a series of conspiracy theories with respect to this virus, saying that it was within the realm of possibility that this virus is an American plot, an American concoction sent to Iran to subjugate Iran. He even said that there may be a unique Iranian form of virus that has been created by the U.S. to affect Iranians disproportionately. Just wild, exaggerated sort of conspiracy theories saying that we don’t want foreign help and we don’t want foreign doctors because the doctors might come to Iran and try to spread the virus, not contain it. This is from the most powerful political leader in Iran’s political system saying these things.

How can you have an effective public health response when the most powerful person in your political system is engaging in outright conspiracy theories. If you look at the response in Iran, the fighting between the government and the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards over how to handle this particular crisis, it’s a textbook study of how authoritarian regimes are uniquely unprepared for responding to global pandemics because their fundamental concern is maintaining political control, maintaining political power, and dealing with their own crisis of legitimacy, not dealing with questions of public health, not dealing with global pandemics.

We could talk more about what’s happening in Egypt. I think Egypt is a disaster. Just to cite one thing that’s relevant, in Egypt there was a very credible journalist working for The Guardian, Ruth Michaelson, who wrote a very good report on what was happening in Egypt with respect to this coronavirus. She was arrested, interrogated, and kicked out of the country. That gives you a sense of what’s happening in Egypt. No surprise there. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is behaving like we would expect him to behave—to sort of control the narrative, to control what’s happening, blame the coronavirus on the Muslim Brotherhood. These are things that you hear on Egyptian television.

Let me just conclude, then, very quickly with some comments. I think this is a critical moment, and I think it’s a very dark moment, not just because of the loss of life that we’re seeing. And that is expected to increase as we move forward in time. But I think, politically speaking, one of the negative consequences that we’re going to see around the world is governments are going to try and absorb more power into their own hands using the argument that this is a national emergency, that we need to consolidate power, that we need to create large and powerful, stronger states where power is concentrated in the hands of government because we have to deal with the crisis. 

And I think this is a very bad omen and it’s a very bad development for those people who believe in democracy and accountable government.

We’re seeing the signs of this already. Earlier this week one of the most notorious authoritarian leaders in Europe, Victor Orban in Hungary, has led the way. He rammed through parliament legislation that allows him to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time and also allows him to criminalize anyone who allegedly is spreading false information about the coronavirus. They can be sent to jail for five years. So this type of power grab is going to be, I think, used by other authoritarian regimes invoking very similar arguments.

In Cambodia recently a new law was proposed, again along similar lines, that there is a national emergency and the Cambodian government requires unlimited and unrestricted emergency powers. If you follow what’s happening there, human rights groups are saying this spells the end for any prospects for democracy in Cambodia. Human Rights Watch issued a statement that this is “a dictatorial set of policies that we haven’t seen in Cambodia since the time of Pol Pot.”

Other countries in the world are going to use this. We’re seeing it in Israel. I predict that Donald Trump, as we get close to the November election, if there is a similar crisis, is going to try and use this moment to either delay the election or manipulate this crisis to perpetuate his own political rule.

One final comment. The UN Human Rights Office issued a statement recently on the coronavirus that said the following: “Over the last years, we’ve witnessed the adverse consequences of the marketization and privatization of a number of essential services, including health care and public health. This is allegedly done under cost-saving economic arguments, but as we are seeing right now, this type of privatization, focusing on economic indicators as opposed public health, has catastrophic consequences primarily during moments of global pandemics.”

I think one of the lessons here that we have to learn is that it’s not simply sufficient to focus on economic growth, high GDP numbers or high GNP numbers, and think that’s way forward. Obviously, we are learning a very hard lesson, that no one is safe in our contemporary world in the age of the coronavirus. 

You’re only as safe as the weakest person on our planet, who can spread this virus and contaminate thousands of people just by virtue of close contact. So this forces us to, I think, much more globally, to think about global cooperation, to think about responsible government. All of those things, both international cooperation and responsible government are core features of healthy democracies; they’re not core features of authoritarian regimes. That’s why I think one of the lessons, one of the take-aways now, is that democracies matter much more than they ever did for our planet. Thank you.

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