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November 20, 2020 – There’s a popular belief around the world that authoritarian countries are better equipped to handle pandemics, and such governments therefore spread like viruses in the wake of such deadly diseases, as humans desperately attempt to stop the spread. Several LaGrange College political science majors and I tested this argument in one of our classes, using data and evidence from history. And here is what we found.

Olivia Hanners, Caleb Tyler, Andrew Valbuena, Kristina Calixto, Taren McGhee, Casey Evans and Maalik Baisden gathered data on countries and their level of democracy, from the respected “Polity IV dataset,” which looks at the consolidation of power within a country. Countries which restrict political participation, the selection of the chief executive, have few constraints on the leadership, etc. are coded as authoritarian, while those that restrict the power of the national government and its leadership in favor of political participation by the people are judged to be democratic. For the coronavirus, we examined the Freedom House data which collects information on a government’s respect for civil liberties and political rights.

These students and I looked at three pandemics (the Spanish Flu, the Asian Flu of 1957-58, and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69), as well as the COVID-19 outbreak. We examined the regime type of countries a year before the pandemic, as well as a year after the pandemic ceased, to see if there were any changes. Our results were presented at the virtual meeting of the Georgia Political Science Association on November 12, 2020.

Few countries changed their governments during these pandemics. Between 70% and 75% of countries didn’t budge in terms of any regime change.

But for those that did, the findings were illuminating. The during the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1920, there were almost three times more countries that shifted to the democratic side (21.5%) as those making the change toward autocracy (7.7%). For the other two pandemics, the results leaned a little more toward authoritarianism, but not by much, and this is considered a Cold War phase where left-wing revolutions and right-wing coups were the norm. Across the three pandemics, the results were evening split between democratizers (13.6%) and autocratizers (13.2%).

There have been reports in the media that COVID-19 is making countries more authoritarian, but that’s not the case. Many of these countries labeled “more authoritarian” made their move toward dictatorship long before most people even heard of Wuhan. We’ve been on an authoritarian wave since the year 2000.

The notion that authoritarians are better at containing pandemics is also not supported. The idea that undemocratic countries can more easily impose restrictions is dramatically offset by dangerous misinformation conveyed from the top, as well as an utter lack of accountability. As Amartya Sen notes in The Lancet “Governments in closed political systems, without open media and opposition parties, struggle to receive information in a timely manner and to convey urgent information to the public. Governments can be victims of their own propaganda.” And, as Matthew Kavanagh of The Lancet writes “In building capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks, democratic openness and competitive politics seem more asset than inadequacy.”

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. Olivia Hanners, Caleb Tyler, Andrew Valbuena, Kristina Calixto, Taren McGhee, Casey Evans and Maalik Baisden contributed to the dataset and research.