Author: Ali Salman, CEO Islam & Liberty Network

The response of public health authorities to the multi-fold crises imposed by COVID-19 has two dimensions. One dimension is the physical handling of suspect and confirmed cases, which includes testing capability, hospital care and implementation of social distancing measures. The second dimension is that of information and communication- speaking truth essentially- and maintaining public trust in the system. Is there a broad pattern that is emerging based on the countries’ different responses?

US-based expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Dr. Nader Hashemi believes that when it comes to effective handling of the COVID-19 crisis, regime type matters. In fact, recent experiences suggest that democratic countries have performed better than the authoritarian countries. In his webinar that was co-organized by the Islam & Liberty Network and The Islamic Renaissance Front, he enumerated several examples of how authoritarian countries are failing in different aspects of this test.

To begin with, Hashemi cites China. He argues that although it is generally believed that China has controlled the virus spread thanks to its strict handling and zoning measures, it should also take the blame for the significant delay in the reporting of the crisis itself. It was in late 2019 when news from Wuhan about an unknown virus started to emerge and the first response of Chinese government was to silence these voices instead of openly admitting it and warning the world about it. By the time China started admitting the problem, it was already too late. Another example Dr. Hashemi quoted was that of Iran, also as an example of another authoritarian regime which has now become a major global hotspot of the novel virus.

To contrast with these examples, Hashemi then quoted Germany, The United States, Korea, Taiwan and Canada as the democratic countries which have taken effective measures in both physical and communication dimensions.

While the hypothesis stating that democratic countries have offered more effective responses to fight the virus than the authoritarian ones is appealing, it is also problematic at the same time.

Within the Muslim majority countries, Saudi Arabia and many other Gulf countries, which are clearly non-democratic countries, can actually be considered as examples of better management of the crisis both through containment and testing abilities.

On the other hand, within the Arab speaking world, Tunisia, a maturing democracy, has been praised by the WHO for its dealing with the crisis. To date, it has only around 500 positive cases in hospitals while thousands have gone into self-isolation. In a country of above 10 million, this is a remarkable achievement. Malaysia is another example of a country where the reported cases are now running into thousands but there is a general public trust in the government. This can be contrasted with two other Muslim majorities- Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the public confidence in the government handling is very weak. In Pakistan, the number of Corona positive cases is on a rise while the country has gone into a lockdown.

One can now revisit the question-does regime type matter when it comes to effective response to the pandemic?

Based on the examples provided, I argue that regime type matters more when we consider the information and communication dimensions of the virus-fighting strategy. Clearly, Iran and China cannot be considered good examples here. However, when we consider the degree of effectiveness in terms of containment, then the regime differential becomes less significant. Saudi Arabia has done better than Iran, both being two non-democratic countries. However, Tunisia, a democracy, has done better than Pakistan which is another democracy. In the same sense, Germany, a democracy, has done much better than Italy and France, two of the established democracies in the world.

Ultimately, what really matters is the preparedness of public health systems. In the case of this pandemic, while no vaccine yet exists in the public domain, the main yardstick is both the ability of testing and the general robustness in the health system. As the varied examples of Germany and Tunisia can tell, ultimately this differential in the healthcare systems matter more than the differential in the regime type.

This discussion has long-term implications for our vision of national governance systems as well as global cooperation, including economic cooperation to a significant degree. While the world is literally fire-fighting the pandemic, it is important to keep raising these futuristic questions. By posing this hypothesis on the regime type, Dr. Hashemi has provided an interesting vantage point which is worth of a serious debate.  

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