by Gabriel Cepaluni Michael T. Dorsch and Réka Branyiczki
4th April 2022

Preserving freedom and protecting lives at the same time is a fundamental challenge for democracies fighting a pandemic. The so-called Freedom Convoy protests in Canada are a recent indication that democratic governments face more resistance to COVID-related restrictions than autocratic regimes.

A truck convoy opposing a vaccine mandate for lorry drivers crossing the US–Canada border escalated into broader protests against pandemic restrictions in Canada, inspiring similar demonstrations around the world, for example in Australia, New Zealand and Belgium. Democratic governments are in a delicate situation as citizens’ frustration with regulations is growing.

Our recent article in the Journal of Public Finance and Public Choice entitled Political regimes and deaths in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic aims to reignite the broader debate about the trade-off that democratic societies must grapple with: restricting social and economic interactions to protect public health, while preserving civil liberties core to liberal democracies.

First, we examine the link between political institutions and deaths during the first 100 days of the pandemic. Second, we assess the stringency and effectiveness of policy responses to the pandemic in more and less democratic countries. We use data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) as of 9 April 2020, which we complement with measures of democratic institutions and a handful of economic and social characteristics, covering 106 countries from all major geographical regions.

We demonstrate that countries with more democratic political institutions experienced deaths on a larger per capita scale than less democratic countries during the first 100 days of the pandemic. When using a binary measure of democracy, we estimate that countries with more democratic institutions experienced 71 per cent more deaths per capita than autocratic countries, accounting for differences across countries in the exposure to the virus.

What if less democratic countries are just systematically underreporting deaths? Death data may be misreported for political reasons or governments may be underreporting simply because they do not have the capacity to maintain a death registry or because they are not testing COVID-19 sufficiently. We capture the probability of misreporting with several indicators, such as measures of government transparency and indicators of the quality of death registry, including proxies for COVID-19 testing capacity. The relationship between political institutions and per capita deaths remains similar even if we account for these, suggesting that fewer COVID-19-related deaths in autocracies are not due to underreporting.

A follow-up study covering a longer time period, from the outbreak until September 2020, confirms the ‘autocratic advantage’ in reducing death during the pandemic. It also shows that the documented effect is not driven by democracies run by populist governments.

Apart from death rates, we investigated the stringency and effectiveness of policy responses to COVID-19 across political regimes. Policy responses during the early phase of the pandemic focused on physical distancing and isolation in the absence of a vaccine. Some of the most common social measures included travel and movement restrictions, bans on public gatherings, school and workplace closings, closures of non-essential facilities and services, and contact tracing. We show that more democratic countries pursued less stringent policy responses. Furthermore, we also find that similar policy responses were less effective in reducing deaths in more democratic countries, possibly due to late introduction and stronger disobedience from citizens.

The results are sobering for advocates of democracy. While there is plenty of evidence that democratic governance yields better economic, health and social outcomes through more informed and accountable policy-making processes, the pandemic’s death toll runs counter to these well-established tendencies. Nevertheless, our message is by no means to advocate autocratic governance. Forced isolation, shutdowns and surveillance may also have a toll on the population. More indirect and long-term consequences of the pandemic and policy responses are still uncertain, both in democracies and autocracies. And the risk of losing civil liberties as a result of lasting ‘temporary’ emergency measures is real, especially in less well-established democracies.

How to overcome the democratic disadvantage then? How to secure public health during emergencies, while maintaining the civil liberties that define liberal democracy? Unfortunately, we cannot offer a silver bullet answer. Transparent and timely communication to have a well-informed population empowered to protect its own health may be part of the solution. A well-communicated emergency strategy that could respond quickly and more efficiently to an outbreak of a virus, coupled with clearly defined preconditions to end the emergency status could also mitigate frustration among citizens.

The stakes are high. The failure to deal effectively with pandemics poses a risk to the public’s trust in democratic governance and could contribute to the democratic rollback that has become widely apparent across the globe.

Gabriel Cepaluni is an Associate Professor at the Sao Paulo State University (UNESP-Franca).

Michael T. Dorsch is an Associate Professor at Central European University, Austria and a Research Affiliate at the Democracy Institute, Hungary. Twitter account: @DorschMT

Réka Branyiczki is a PhD Candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science at Central European University, Austria. Twitter account: @Rbranyiczki


 Journal of Public Finance and Public Choice coverRead the article ‘Political regimes and deaths in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic‘ in Journal of Finance and Public Choice.

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