MANY PEOPLE would look at the covid-19 pandemic and conclude that democracies are bad at tackling infectious diseases. America and the EU had months to prepare after China sounded the alarm in January. Both have subsequently suffered more than 300 confirmed deaths per 1m people. China’s Communist Party reports an official death rate that is 99% lower, and has trumpeted its apparent success in containing the outbreak domestically.
Yet most data suggest that political freedom can be a tonic against disease. The Economist has analysed epidemics from 1960 to 2019. Though these outbreaks varied in contagiousness and lethality, a clear correlation emerged. Among countries with similar wealth, the lowest death rates tend to be in places where most people can vote in free and fair elections. Other definitions of democracy give similar results.
We cannot replicate this analysis for covid-19 yet, as it is still spreading at different rates around the world. Western democracies were hit early, in big cities with large flows of people from abroad. Daily deaths are now declining in these places but rising in developing countries, which tend to be less connected and more autocratic.
Existing data are also patchy. Countries that do little testing have few official cases. Even among confirmed cases, governments might be tweaking the number of deaths. Countries with a free press, according to Freedom House, a think-tank, have 60 deaths per 1,000 cases on average. Suspiciously, the average in places that lack media freedom is less than half that. A rate of 15 deaths per 1,000 cases is plausible in New Zealand, which has contained the virus, but less so in Russia, which has not.
One consistent measure that is available in most countries, but not China, is Google’s index of mobility via smartphone apps. Researchers at Oxford University reckon that, after adjusting for a country’s wealth and other characteristics, democracies saw a 35% larger reduction in movement in response to lockdown policies. The drop in New Zealand, for example, was twice that in autocratic Bahrain.
People who praise China for its handling of covid-19 would do better to look at Taiwan, a neighbouring democracy. China wasted valuable time in December by intimidating doctors who warned of a lethal virus. Taiwan swiftly launched tracing measures in January—and has suffered only seven deaths. ■
Sources: Frey et al. (working paper); Google mobility reports; Boix et al. (2015); Maddison Project; World Bank; Em-Dat; Freedom House; Hale et al. (2020)
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Out in the open”