Are Democracies More Susceptible To Pandemics?

Authoritarianism allows for swift, decisive action, and when it comes to controlling a viral outbreak, that may be an advantage. But that's only part of the equation.

An Iranian nurse gets the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine in Tehran
An Iranian nurse gets the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine in Tehran
Adrian Lobe


BERLIN — The coronavirus pandemic has so far claimed more than 2 million lives. That is more than the number of people worldwide who die every year from traffic accidents or AIDS. And in Europe, at least, the crisis is far from over. Death rates are still high and doctors are being forced to choose which patients to prioritize.

Some East Asia countries, on the other hand, seem to be dealing with the pandemic better, with significantly lower infection and death rates. Is is because of their Confucianist cultures, where discipline and the collective good are more important than individual freedoms? Or because they have limited data protection, which makes track and trace easier? Does the form of government play a role?

For a while now, political scientists have been debating whether a democracy or autocracy is more effective at combating the virus. Are democracies more vulnerable to epidemics? Is it perhaps a good thing that the virus first broke out in China and not in the United States, because an authoritarian regime has more far-ranging powers?

If you take a look at the figures, of the 20 countries with the highest infection rates, eight are democracies (the United States, India, France, the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic), 11 are so-called "flawed democracies' (Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Ukraine, South Africa, Indonesia) and just one, Iran, is an autocracy.

But it's also true that authoritarian regimes make a habit of covering up inconvenient facts. It may be the case, therefore, that certain autocracies are missing from the list because they aren't reporting their COVID-19 infections.

That aside, what's interesting is the large number — among the countries with the highest infection rates — of "flawed" or "illiberal" democracies. These are terms political scientists use to describe countries with a (sustained) absence of political freedoms and rights or constitutional elements (in individual cases, the distinction between a flawed democracy and an autocracy is not always clear).

Access to information

All of this could be a coincidence, of course. But there may be a causal link between a country's form of government and its performance in combating the pandemic.

We know from empirical research, for example, that democratic states have better public goods (such as health infrastructure) than autocratic countries. In a study that took Kenya as an example, researchers Antoine Marsaudon and Josselin Thuilliez found that a democracy tends to be more effective than an autocracy in combating HIV.

There may be a causal link between a country's form of government and its performance in combating the pandemic.

The reason is that citizens in a democratic country have better access to information through free media and are more aware of methods of protection against HIV. That doesn't mean that when a country becomes a democracy, the HIV infection rate goes down. But a person living in a democracy has a lower risk of being infected with the virus. And also a lower risk of starvation.

Indian economist Amartya Sen once said that there is never famine in functioning democracies. The reason is that democratic governments must win elections, so they have a stronger motivation for avoiding humanitarian disasters. An authoritarian leader, on the other hand, can ignore the suffering of the people to a certain extent, as he or she doesn't need to be re-elected (see North Korea, for example, where the regime's mismanagement of the economy has led to a decades-long food shortage).

That famines have been on the rise in recent years could have less to do with climate change and more to do with a decline in democracies worldwide.

Evidence that democracies are generally better than autocracies at managing crises can also be seen in their lower child mortality rates. That doesn't mean that individual autocratic regimes always fare worse than democracies when it comes to public goods. The child mortality rate in democratic India is far higher than in autocratic China. But autocracies suffer from different illnesses.

A delivery of Covid-19 Moderna vaccine arrives in Palermo, Italy — Photo: Fucarini/ROPI via ZUMA Press

In a study of the SARS epidemic in Asia, social scientist Cong Cao wrote that authoritarian regimes create ways of disseminating information that are skewed in their favor, which allows bureaucrats to spread lies or suppress the truth.

In February 2003, a doctor asked the local government in Guangdong to make information about the epidemic public. He was turned away — the authorities didn't want any information to get out. As a result, Beijing lost valuable time. Now history has repeated itself: Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who tried to warn people about the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak, was silenced by the police and later died from the virus himself.

It is highly likely that the actions of autocratic governments accelerated the spread of coronavirus. Former U.S. president Donald Trump acted like an autocrat himself by initially playing down the severity of the virus, and the high infection rates in the United States may be the result.

Interestingly, Europe was barely affected by the SARS virus — there were only a handful of cases in Germany. It's true that in 2003, there was much less international travel to spread the virus. But the decisive factor in successfully combating the virus was that doctors shared information with each other. This shows that transparency and exchanging information are effective weapons in the fight against pandemics.

Extraordinary measures

But it's also true that with this particular pandemic, even liberal democracies have been forced to introduce some more authoritarian measures: To curb the spread of the virus, they have restricted basic rights by ordering people to stay home, for example. Curfews and checks on those required to quarantine are measures we would usually only see in police states. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Even liberal democracies have been forced to introduce some more authoritarian measures.

American political scientist David Stasavage wrote in an essay that autocracies and democracies face very different challenges in a pandemic. The question is not which is better at managing the crisis, but what are the advantages of disadvantages of each system. In an autocracy, the state can act decisively, without any institutional barriers. But there's also a risk that information will be suppressed. In a democracy, information circulates more freely, but it is more difficult to impose strict measures.

For Stasavage, the main problem is how to gauge risks. In Jan. 1976, when soldiers at the U.S. military base Fort Dix began to fall ill with an influenza virus, the wider public was gripped by fear of a second Spanish Flu. Then U.S. President Gerald Ford ordered a mass vaccination drive. A vaccine was produced and fast-tracked through approval.

After reports of illnesses and deaths connected to the vaccination, the population became skeptical. Fear of the vaccine was greater than fear of the virus. The swine flu turned out to be harmless — the virus had never left the military base. The vaccination program, which cost $135 million, was a political and economic disaster. Ford was not re-elected.

This case shows how difficult it is for political leaders to accurately gauge threats. There's a small margin of error between alarmism and downplaying. Governments worldwide are currently facing greater challenges, when you consider the growing number of anti-vaxxers and the spread of fake news online.

Many countries have introduced strict regulations against spreading false information about COVID-19. In Iran, citizens found guilty of spreading false information face up to three years in prison or flogging. In Thailand, April Fools jokes about coronavirus could lead to up to five years in jail. Spreading fake news about the virus is also a punishable offense in South Africa.

But it's not only authoritarian regimes or flawed democracies that are restricting those kinds of basic rights. Liberal democracies are also openly considering restrictions on freedom of expression in order to combat the virus. The interior minister for the state of Lower Saxony Boris Pistorius (SPD) has called for fines or even harsher punishments for people who spread fake news or half-truths. The virus of autocratic rule is starting to infect liberal democracies.

The dilemma facing democracies is that they must remain democratic in order to be resilient in this crisis, but that they also have to act in an autocratic manner. As law professors Stephen Thomson and Eric C. Ip wrote in a recent essay: "An unjustified erosion of civil liberties in the name of combating the virus is counterproductive and self-destructive, as it will set public health back in the long term."

If it is true that democracies provide better basic services for citizens, dismantling civil liberties would eventually lead to higher mortality rates. It has been proven, after all, that more people die in autocracies than democracies. Civil liberties, therefore, are still our best protection against coronavirus.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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