America’s COVID-19 Disaster Is a Setback for Democracy

If the country’s institutions cannot function effectively during a crisis, and especially if a view takes hold that authoritarian regimes are managing the crisis more decisively, a grim future lies ahead.

A man in a face mask walks past a bus stop in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer / Getty

In December 1940—a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but well into Britain’s struggle for survival against the Nazis—President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the United States to abandon isolationism and become “the arsenal of democracy.” To make that happen, he mobilized American industry and produced the planes, ships, guns, and ammunition needed to defeat fascism.

With COVID-19, America faces a new existential enemy, and the country must again summon its industrial might and its scientific and engineering prowess to fight it. This is not an imperative only for the American people. Once the country has met its own overwhelming needs, the world is going to require America’s medicines, science, and supplies on a massive scale. If, when this pandemic finally abates, the dominant global narrative becomes “It was China’s authoritarian system that helped us, while the democracies of the West floundered and selfishly turned in on themselves,” humanity will emerge from this devastating crisis into a radically different and more dangerous world, one deeply hostile to freedom and self-government.

Pandemics fan the instinct for closure and walling off. The U.S. can shut its borders temporarily, but there is no returning to “fortress America.” The country’s interests—and its values—are all too global.

Donald Trump’s cavalier downplaying of intelligence reports warning of a worldwide outbreak in early January—and the subsequent 70 days of what The Washington Post termed “denial and dysfunction” across his administration—squandered precious weeks when the U.S. could have taken concerted steps to prepare for and contain the coming crisis. His continued pattern of deceit and deception about the nature and scope of the public-health disaster further cost the country a “golden hour” that could have been used to begin mass production and distribution of tests and equipment, and to educate the public about the gravity of the coming pandemic and the urgent need for social distancing. A different presidential posture early on could have saved many American lives.

It didn’t have to be this way. The narrative that China is trying to promote after its rapid recovery from the virus—that its semi-totalitarian control of people and information is the only way to manage a pandemic like this—is wrong on two counts. First, China’s authoritarian instinct to suppress bad news enabled the virus to explode in Wuhan in December, when it might have been contained by the free flow of information and a rapid emergency response. Second, democratic societies in Asia—South Korea and especially Taiwan (along with a more transparent non-democracy, Singapore)—have been able to contain the virus without China’s draconian, communist-style measures. As Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has argued, they’ve done so by learning the lessons of the SARS epidemic and using strong health systems and reservoirs of public legitimacy and trust to test quickly and widely and track infected individuals.

Crises always test self-government. Unlike authoritarian regimes—which can use force, fear, and fraud to control their populations—democracies rely on open information and the consent of the governed. Unlike China, democracies cannot cover up their failures for very long. If citizens lose faith in the legitimacy of democracy as the best form of government—if their institutions cannot function effectively during a crisis, and especially if a view takes hold that authoritarian regimes are managing the crisis more “decisively”—many democracies will be at grave risk of failure.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding at a time when democracy—at home and abroad—is already in distress. For more than a decade, freedom and democracy have been in recession, and more countries have lost than gained political rights and civil liberties in each of the past 14 years. In the past decade, the rate of democratic breakdown has been accelerating, and nearly a fifth of all democracies are failing (nearly double the proportion of democracies that died in each of the preceding two decades). As the advanced, postindustrial democracies have become preoccupied with their own problems and divisions; as their prestige has waned (particularly that of the U.S.) following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then the 2008 financial crisis; and as Russia and especially China have expanded their global propaganda operations, power projection, and self-confidence, democracy has been placed on the defensive.

The world is still in the early days of the pandemic, and by the end, some countries may be making foundational changes to their systems of government. Even wealthy states with relatively strong administrative and public-health capacities, such as Italy and the U.S., find their medical systems under strain. Imagine what will happen when the coronavirus spreads mostly unchecked in countries that lack the public-health and economic resources of wealthier countries. Health systems are likely to become overwhelmed much more quickly. Poor urban neighborhoods—where people live crowded together, with little access to sanitation, health care, or public safety, and many with weakened immune systems—could become intensive breeding grounds for the virus. Without smart and generous policy responses by donor countries “that can successfully navigate the complex health and security realities,” the death tolls in the world’s poorer nations could run into the millions. To preempt that, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late March took the most dramatic step of any nation to try to stop the spread of the virus: a three-week stay-at-home order for all 1.3 billion citizens.

The political effects of this crisis are likely to be profound. In the medium to long run, the economic distress, piled atop the death toll, could destabilize and even topple many governments. That could wreak havoc on fragile democracies—or renew the case for transparency and good governance, which are hallmarks of liberal democracy. In the near term, the pandemic, with its need for rapid and strong government action, “provides a particularly convincing cover under which autocrats can pursue their agendas.” This cover is rapidly being exploited by autocrats around the world, from Russia to Turkey to Venezuela to Egypt; by pseudo-democrats eager to establish full dictatorship, such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary; and by democratically elected rulers—from the Philippines to India to Poland—intent on silencing free expression. Governments are ramping up information control and digital surveillance of citizens while, in the words of the Human Rights Watch president, Kenneth Roth, “detaining journalists, opposition activists, healthcare workers, and anyone else who dares to criticize the official response to the coronavirus.”

The siren song of strongman rule will be harder to resist if authoritarian regimes appear to be managing the virus more successfully. Democracies must show that they can govern effectively to meet the pressing public-health and economic dimensions of the crisis. Above all, this requires urgent steps to stop the spread of the virus through rigorous social distancing and widespread testing; to shore up the capacity of health systems to treat the sick (through the requisition and manufacturing of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other crucial medical supplies); to construct new temporary hospital facilities when necessary; and to expedite the testing and development of potential treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine. The U.S. and its democratic partners must also act expeditiously to distribute financial relief to businesses and workers to prevent the deep and unavoidable economic recession from becoming a depression.

This leads to a political imperative, which, if not met, could strain and even rupture American democracy. If the COVID-19 contagion persists through or resurges in the fall, the possibilities for a free and fair election on November 3 could be jeopardized. This does not need to happen. The U.S. has half a year to avoid a repeat of the horrible spectacle of the Wisconsin primary last week, when voters, unable to vote by mail, were forced to risk infection by waiting in lines, without proper distancing, to vote at crowded polling stations that had been reduced in number by more than 90 percent. People should be excused from the obligation of going out on Election Day to a polling place where they may face long lines, shared surfaces on which the virus may diffuse, and inadequate numbers of poll workers. Every American who wants to do so should be able to freely vote by mail, or to receive in the mail a ballot that they can drop off at a polling or counting center. If social distancing is the immediate public-health directive for limiting the spread of the virus, distant voting is the clear electoral parallel. Many states require financial and technical assistance (totaling up to $3 billion nationally) to make this option available to all voters, and Congress must appropriate the funds soon.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Older voters, non-urban voters, and red-state voters are no less anxious to be able to cast a vote that does not put their health at risk. In fact, because of the nature of the virus, older voters are more at risk if they go to the polls. Moreover, a solidly Republican state, Utah, will join Hawaii this year to become the fifth state in the country to vote entirely by mail. The switch caps a years-long process in which voter turnout dramatically increased along with voter satisfaction as Utah counties, one by one, adopted voting by mail.

Nothing the U.S. could do to shore up the global fate of democracy would have a greater impact than the effective management of its own epidemic, economic crisis, and election. But the country must not allow its domestic trials to blind it to the need for international action and vigilance in the face of authoritarian ambition and disinformation.

The best hope for controlling and reversing the pandemic lies in deep, multifaceted cooperation among countries, sharing information, supplies, and research that can lead to medical treatments and a vaccine for the virus. That is why, even with all its flaws, America—as much as the rest of the world—needs an effective World Health Organization. President Trump’s efforts to suspend U.S. payments to the organization is shortsighted and self-defeating. Additionally, independent media and civil-society organizations around the globe need the financial support of Western democracies to ensure the free flow of information and the self-organization of society, to counter both the pandemic and the tendency of rulers to use the pandemic to aggrandize their power and eclipse civil liberties.

American diplomacy, solidarity, and assistance can make a difference in saving many lives while preventing the full-scale retreat of freedom. But if that’s not what happens, if America stands back and watches from the sidelines while governments and societies unravel, the coronavirus and its likely mutations will kill many more. And eventually, when the pandemic does subside, the world will be much more unstable, unsafe, and badly governed, a breeding ground for Islamist and other radical movements, for resentment of the West, and for a new world order with China at its center.