- Covid vs. Democracy
The covid-19 pandemic may represent one of the most serious challenges to global democracy since before the “third wave” of democratization began in the mid-1970s. The virus emerged in the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The pathogen might never have caused a global pandemic had not crucial weeks been wasted—first by local officials in Wuhan, then by higher authorities in Beijing—suppressing information about the contagion. The authoritarian reflex to censor, cover up, and deny squandered precious time when the virus might have been contained. Yet since March, the PRC has managed to gain control of the virus within its borders, even if in heavy-handed fashion, while many prominent democracies have struggled.
Covid statistics should be viewed with caution. Because democracies are transparent, they are more likely to report deaths and infections honestly, though even then the official figures likely understate the true toll. Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, have an instinct to hide bad news lest their legitimacy come into question.
Even allowing for these caveats, the data tell a disheartening tale: Among countries with more than a million people, almost all the hardest-hit ones are democracies in Europe and the Americas. In terms of deaths per million, Brazil and the United States rank seventh and ninth globally. Spain, Chile, the United Kingdom, and Italy, and each also has well over five-hundred deaths per million. South Africa leads Africa in the recorded covid death rate, and that rate has been rising steadily. By September, India had the fastest-rising number of new covid-19 cases, and total U.S. deaths were climbing toward two-hundred thousand, with little sense of a unified national strategy to combat the pandemic.
Authoritarian regimes—most of all, the PRC’s—have seized on these trends to call liberal democracies (especially the United States) feckless while trumpeting their own harsh controls as tokens of a superior form of governance. Other autocratic and illiberal governments have used the crisis as cover to rule by decree, postpone elections, arrest critics, heighten censorship, remove presidential term limits, and foment hatred of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities as carriers or causes of the pandemic. Autocracies and democracies alike have mandated the use of mobile-phone tracking and tracing apps with dubious safeguards regarding privacy, the length of time data can be stored, or the purposes for which government can use the sensitive information gathered. All these developments seem to herald an acceleration of the more than decade-long erosion of freedom in the world.
The pandemic is so new, however, that we still do not fully grasp how prominent emerging-market democracies have managed it, to say nothing [End Page 74] of the effects that both the disease and the responses to it have had on democratic norms, practices, and institutions. To help fill this gap, we sought to examine the pandemic’s effects on democracy in the three “BRICS” democracies of Brazil, India, and South Africa—countries with outsized influence on political trends in their regions.
The three essays that follow highlight the diversity of national responses to the pandemic and the crucial specificity of different national circumstances. None of these three democracies has had success in managing the pandemic, but the effects on democracy are far from uniform. Despite having a president who has mocked medical science and resisted the kinds of measures—such as testing, tracing, and mask-wearing—known to slow the spread of the virus, Brazil has experienced contradictory effects on its democracy. On the one hand, Amy Erica Smith finds that President Jair Bolsonaro’s incompetent response to the virus may have diminished the risk of military intervention since he is so closely identified with the military. On the other hand, Smith argues that Bolsonaro’s pugnacious and defiant public stances on the pandemic have heightened partisan and societal polarization in ways that subject democracy to stress while weakening the country’s ability to address the public-health crisis.
In India, by contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved swiftly to shut down the country as the pandemic hit. But he did so in...