Strongmen for Scared People?

Many leaders around the world are using the corona virus pandemic as an excuse – or an opportunity – to toss aside the constraints and accountability required by liberal, republican democracy – to become autocrats or dictators.  Joshua Kurlantzick of the Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations illustrates this reality with several examples:  in Azerbaijan, the dictator cracked down on opposition groups and the media; the Cambodian leader used the virus as an excuse to arrest 17 political opponents; Israel’s leader shut down the court system; Jordan’s leaders have cracked down on the press; the Thai government can now close down the media if they choose; Turkish authorities have jailed people for criticizing the virus response; and in Hungary, the parliament gave the prime minister dictatorial power to rule by decree – indefinitely.

Are dictators better doctors?  The Lancet journal, one of the world’s oldest, most prestigious, and best known general medical journals, recently published a careful study of the impact of democratization on health care outcomes. The study found that healthcare outcomes generally improved in countries that became less dictatorial and more democratic, especially so for those countries with free and fair elections.  The study found this was true for many causes of death, including tuberculosis, HIV, cancer, cardiovascular, and cirrhosis.

We add our own evidence.  Our preliminary investigation at CFFAD suggests that liberal, republican democracies had lower excess death rates in the 1918 flu pandemic.  An index of liberal democracy from the Varieties of Data project explains 39 percent of the variation in outcomes for 43 countries. Adding data for population density and the urban share of the population add more explanatory value without diminishing the value of democracy.  Population density made it easier for the flu to spread, and rural areas had less access to hospitals, doctors, and nurses.  Data for GDP per-capita and war deaths were not statistically significant.  Note: the USA was not a full liberal, republican democracy in 1918.  Women did not get the right to vote until 1920, and most people of color were effectively denied the vote despite the 15th amendment.  Perhaps our flu deaths would have been lower if the USA had been fully democratic back then.  If you want more information, you are welcome to write to us at

So, what about the corona virus and US democracy?  It is too early to know what final death tolls will be, especially with wide variations across countries in how corona cases are detected and deaths are recorded.  Even so, there is one thing we do know:  the quality of our liberal, republican democracy has slipped from an all-time peak in 2008 to where it was in 1974.  In 2008, there were only four countries with better scores. Now there are thirty-five. 

To learn more:

  • About why democracy is precious and what needs protecting, try our learning modules.
  • About emergency powers, read our blog pieces here and here.

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