Democracies vs Autocracies in COVID-19

Democracies vs Autocracies in COVID-19
Global pandemics have contributed to the rise and fall of great powers in the past.

In partnership with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark and the German Marshall Fund in the United States, Synergia Foundation discussed how democracies and autocracies differ in defining their COVID-19 strategies.

A historical perspective

In the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, Athens was struck by the plague in circa 430 BC. This outbreak of typhoid from North Africa decimated the Athenians, depleted its military and even took the life of its most effective leader Pericles. Prior to the outbreak, Athens appeared on the verge of victory but weakened by the affliction. It sued for temporary peace in 412. When the fighting resumed in Athens, it was defeated and, importantly, its democratic form of government was overthrown by the victorious Spartans.

A similar fate awaited the Venetian Republic. Venice was a superpower in the Middle Ages, one of the wealthiest city on Earth. It was the world’s leading trading and naval power, and controlled territory, trading ports, and colonies from mainland Italy throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.

Venice too had to contend unsuccessfully with the continuous outburst of the plague. The Italian Plague that broke out from 1629 to 1631, was considered to have its genesis in China and advanced westwards through the ancient Silk route. As a major business centre, Venice was among most affected cities. The word ‘Quarantine’ has its etymology from the Venetian word for 40 – Quarto. The Italian Plague contributed to a major shift in the European balance of power as Venice ebbed and Northern European states like England and the Dutch Republic, flourished to become major geopolitical powers

In the present context

All democracies have evoked an emergency style of governance – there is hardly any perceptible difference between Democracy and Autocracy.

A classic example of this diffusion is Prime Minister Victor Orban, who was granted extraordinary powers by the Hungarian parliament - the power to rule by decree to combat the coronavirus pandemic, so long as the prime minister deems it fit.

The second is the President of the Philippines, who was granted extraordinary powers to nurture the country’s health care system beyond the stipulated three months

Third, although France, Italy and the U.K. are under lockdown too, the compelling distinction is that their governments have defined time limits, and promised regular scrutiny of their powers in monitoring the lockdown.

A host of democratic countries, Israel and South Korea to name just two, have joined China and Iran in seeking to track coronavirus patients using cell phone data. Several European countries are contemplating to adopt this strategy.

Leadership styles during pandemics

However, according to a study done by Synergia Foundation, the quintessential difference in this debate is the quality of such leadership to face a crisis of existential proportion. The leadership styles can be categorised as given below:-

  • The Style of Leadership - Empathy, Consistency in messaging & Willingness to accept challenges.

  • The Nature of leadership – We need leaders who constantly look for innovative solutions

  • Leadership as a privilege – which is far bigger than ourselves.We don’t hang on to power when you cannot deliver.

  • Grounded - Leaders must have the right sensors and act early with a clear vision

The first example is the pre-emptive style of Leadership of Vu Duc Dam, Vice Prime Minister of Vietnam. On 25th January 2020, he declared war on coronavirus; even though at that time, the spread was confined solely to China. With the help of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the whole nation, including its security forces, military, and civilian government, was mobilized on a war-footing, to contain the spread of the virus. These measures were imposed with nationalistic fervour and most importantly, accepted by the people at large. Vu Duc Dam was seen as the champion of this crusade and is lauded as a hero. Vietnam has recorded only 179 confirmed cases, with no deaths so far

Secondly, the pro-active leadership of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India at the national level and Mrs Shailaja, the health minister of the state of Kerala at the local level. The Indian Prime Minister demonstrated proactive leadership by his decision to lock down the whole country for three weeks, from 25 March to 14 April 2020. The PM has also shown statesmanship by reaching out to other world leaders, including the G-20 and SAARC.

&At a state level, the 63-year-old Mrs Shailaja, the health minister, continues to be the face of Kerala’s pandemic control measures. The minister is credited for innovative community surveillance measures, including ‘home-quarantine with mobile-phone monitoring’ and ‘flow-charting of patients for travel and social-visits’. She will also be remembered for her empathetic style of leadership in providing the school mid-day meal to children, at home, when schools were shut down.

Finally, we look at the reactive style of leadership of Giuseppe Conti, PM of Italy, Boris Johnson Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,and President Donald Trump of the United States.

The Italian Government was perhaps unaware or unresponsive to the threat, until 20th Feb 2020. It is also unfortunate that the Italian PM chose to impose the quarantine in a secretive manner. A more transparent approach and a progressive manner of quarantining may have prevented the exodus. The British Government’s delayed and reactive response to the threat is perhaps the primary reason for the accelerated spread of the contagion, amongst its 66 million population. The U.S. President has been blamed for playing down the threat matrix, by brazenly stating that community-spread was unlikely, even after senior health officials had cautioned otherwise.


There is an ideological element to the debate we have today. To deal with COVID-19, the autocratic Chinese Communist Party initially tried to hide the outbreak, which only made matters worse. But after a slow start, China imposed draconian measures and appears to have wrestled the disease under control.

Onlookers are now watching to see whether democratic countries like the United States and the EU will be better able to navigate this crisis. The success or failure of the U.S / EU vs. Chinese response will shape global perceptions about the relative efficacy of Democracy versus Autocracy to handle pandemic situations.


Author: Tobby Simon, Founder and President, Synergia Foundation