From the answer to one of my previous questions:

It's an old saw in political science that if one wants a just society one has to surrender to having an inefficient society. Autocrats and dictators are efficient, but that's not always a compliment; Hitler made the trains run on time, but then he used those trains to commit world war and genocide. Representative democracy is slow, contentious, and aggravating — a constant "two steps forward and one step back" affair — but in the long run it grinds its way through to reasonable, moral outcomes. Ten people might be an efficient-sized group to rule a nation, but it is pragmatically and statistically impossible to select a group of ten people who are representative of the nation's population as a whole, so their decisions will not reflect the interests of their populace.

For COVID-19, it's presumably better to be efficient than it is to grind one's way to reasonable, moral outcomes. Therefore: is it the case that autocratic countries (as measured by, e.g., the Democracy index) handle COVID-19 better?

I can think of autocratic countries that did well (Vietnam, Laos, China) but I can also think of autocratic countries that did not do well (Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran). The same goes for democratic countries: I know some that did well (Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan) and some that did badly (US, Brazil, India).

If the metric matters, I am most interested in cases per capita, although I'd also be interested in other metrics.

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    The three democratic countries you mentioned (Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan) have the advantage of being physically isolated. Japan and South Korea also fared fairly well. Japan is yet another island nation, and even though South Korea is part of Asia, it too is essentially an island nation. Great Britain, while also an island nation, is extremely well connected by rail, car, and plane with mainland Europe -- and also with the U.S. and Canada. Mar 25, 2021 at 3:21
  • @DavidHammen yes. I'm hoping that with a sufficiently large sample size these are-you-isolated effects will be washed out.
    – Allure
    Mar 25, 2021 at 3:22
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    @DavidHammen regardless, mainland China has minimal COVID restrictions right now, implying the virus is under control.
    – Allure
    Mar 25, 2021 at 3:28
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    But it does make sense that autocratic countries will fare better than non-autocratic countries in a pandemic. Shutting down transportation from a city plagued with disease? That's no problem at akk in an autocratic country, but is a huge problem in a democratic country. Bolting the apartment doors shut on someone who probably shouldn't have ventured outside? That too is not a problem in an autocratic country, but is a huge problem in a democratic country. Mar 25, 2021 at 3:30
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    Another thing is general reaction of the populace. If the government of an autocratic nation puts out orders to control infection, the populace, who have become used to their general lack of freedoms and being directed by their government in all things, will be more apt to follow those requirements. Contrast to the US. While many disparaged Trump's handling of COVID, the population here bears a large responsibility. In areas, for instance, where the State government has made masks mandatory, the populace, who is used to more freedom, is more apt to go "you can't tell me what to do."
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 26, 2021 at 12:12

3 Answers 3


No, I think this is more about a country's ability and willingness to control borders and impose quarantine restrictions.

Border control working to keep the virus under control

The trick to keeping the virus under control in at least China, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand and Thailand is to get local transmission under control (if there was any) and then to make sure that no new cases come in and spread locally.

Thailand and China are countries with land borders, but they are still able to keep a hold of imported cases though extensive quarantine of foreign arrivals. This is confirmed by analyses from from foreign governments (e.g. the European Council) which classify these as low risk countries.

The same principle applies to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia, but they have an easier job keeping control of imported cases because they are islands. That means most arrivals enter through a few ports of entry (airports, regular ports) where arrivals are also subject to quarantine and testing.

When it doesn't work

Of course being an island alone doesn't mean it's a safe haven automatically. The UK has had many coronavirus cases with significant local transmission. Once local transmission cannot be controlled, stringent entry controls won't prevent the virus from spreading.

And when you don't even have the benefit of few ports of entry, as many continental EU countries don't, then it's even harder to keep the virus under control. This essentially happened in the European Union with the first epicenter in Italy. Due to freedom of movement, many of those cases have spread to other European countries which failed to implement efficient quarantine for all travelers.

Going back in time, the Dutch state broadcaster NOS wrote on the 3rd of March 2020:

Het aantal bevestigde gevallen van het coronavirus in Nederland is gisteren toegenomen tot 23, meldde het RIVM. Dat zijn er vijf meer dan gisteren. Bijna alle mensen bij wie het coronavirus is vastgesteld, zijn reizigers afkomstig uit Noord-Italië of mensen uit een gezin van een eerdere patiënt.

Vanwege de uitbraak van het virus heeft het ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken per direct het reisadvies voor Noord-Italië aangepast. Nederlanders moeten daar alleen nog naartoe reizen als dat noodzakelijk is, dus niet voor vakanties. Tot nu toe had het grootste deel van Noord-Italië de kleurcode geel. Dat wordt nu oranje.

Roughly translated:

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Netherlands rose to 23 yesterday, the RIVM [Dutch health authority] reported. That's five more than yesterday. Almost all confirmed cases are travelers from Northern Italy or family members of previously confirmed patients.

Due to the outbreak of the virus, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has immediately changed the travel advice for Northern Italy. Dutch nationals should only go there if travel is necessary, which does not include vacationing. Up to now, the largest part of Northern Italy was coded yellow [advice: beware of risks]. This will now change to code orange [advice: necessary trips only].

Back to Thailand, how did they manage it?

Comparing that with Thailand which has kept most local transmission under control until now (March 2021), there was already talk of quarantine for high-risk travelers as early as the 5th of March 2020:

On Tuesday, Thailand’s Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said in Facebook post that all visitors from “high-risk zones” would be required to quarantine themselves for 14 days, according to a Bangkok Post report. The post, which was quickly deleted “without explanation,” reportedly mentioned Singapore, Japan, China and South Korea.

Local lockdowns started April, with CNN reporting about the Thai tourist island of Phuket:

Restrictions are set to get even tighter. On April 9, the government announced a lockdown for all 17 sub-districts of the island for 14 days, asking all residents to stay home from April 13-26, "or until the situation improves."

"The move makes Phuket the first province in Thailand to impose a total lockdown of all areas, in its sustained effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19)," says a statement from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

But entry from abroad was restricted from March 26th through an emergency decree requiring the quarantine measures that are still in effect today.

Back to the question

Is this necessarily an autocratic vs democratic situation? No, clearly democratic countries can take emergency measures too. And as we've seen (I've not shown a timeline from Australia or New Zealand because I'm not as familiar with their handeling specifically) some democracies have taken swift emergency measures whereas others (e.g. in the European Union) have reacted too slowly for such measures to work.

And while I've not given specific examples, failure to take measures quickly has also occurred in some autocratic countries.

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    Which camp do you classify Thailand in, with their divine king, his considerable wealth and their stringent lese-majeste laws? Autocratic or Democratic? Mar 25, 2021 at 5:02
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I think it's best to refer to the various organizations that specialize in that. I think most conclude that it's less democratic than the Netherlands but more so than China. But yeah, it's a scale, not a binary thing.
    – JJJ
    Mar 25, 2021 at 5:12

Looks like the answer is yes, but. Autocratic countries are indeed able to handle COVID-19 better than democratic countries, but the political will + competence + resources to do so must be there. If they are there then autocratic countries are also able to implement policies democratic countries cannot.

The one autocratic country that's able and willing to do this is China.

The latest flareup followed the contours of earlier ones. Officials shut down the city of Harbin after a single patient was hospitalized in September. The port of Ningbo, one of the world's busiest, was closed in August, while manufacturing took a hit because of the restrictions. The sporadic resurgences are unlikely to stop, public health experts said. But China's authoritarian government has always been capable of feats beyond the imagination of most other countries.

"The kind of capacity and degree of control they can exert is remarkable," said Michael Baker, a professor at the University of Otago's Department of Public Health in Wellington, who sits on the New Zealand government's Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group. "It's way beyond what we can do, not just from a point of view of resources but the social license that governments have. We wouldn't be able to exert the kind of control that China is able to exert, even in achieving a good end, which is managing an outbreak."


It's not in the source, but I'm guessing that the scale of the economic damage is such that only rich countries are able to sustain the effort necessary to contain COVID-19.



I only used the most democratic & most authoritarian countries because of a lack of time. The data includes all "full democracy" countries (up to South Korea); from the other end the data includes all the least democratic countries up to Guinea-Bissau. The results are below, where the x-axis is the democracy index and the y-axis is the COVID cases per capita.

[see below for updated image]

There are two authoritarian countries without numbers in Worldometers - North Korea & Turkmenistan. Both countries claim 0 cases. The five authoritarian countries with more than 10,000 cases per capita are Bahrain, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, and Iran.

If one believes the data then the authoritarian countries clearly did better than the democratic ones, although some of the reported numbers are so low that I have trouble believing them. For example, Yemen has only 126 cases per capita, but the country's humanitarian situation was already dire before the pandemic, so this number is surprising.

Edit: I filled in some of the gap in the middle. Since some of the numbers appear unreliable, I filled in from the "democratic" end. The current plot goes down to Nigeria, with democratic index 4.1.

enter image description here

It appears there is a correlation between democracy & cases per capita, but it's small.

If I learned anything from this, it's that many African countries seem to have done amazingly well at handling COVID-19, if one only looks at cases per capita. For example, Tanzania has 8 cases per capita, Uganda has 871, Nigeria has 773.

  • So, shortly put, your question cannot be easily answered because you cannot trust the figures provided by some "authoritarian countries", right?
    – Alexei
    Mar 26, 2021 at 5:33
  • @Alexei looks like it.
    – Allure
    Mar 26, 2021 at 5:41
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    Confirmed cases also rely on testing. Another way might be to focus on the excess mortality rate. While those figures could be distorted too, it doesn't rely on comparable testing strategies. Of course other factors come into play then, e.g. in countries with a larger elderly population we would expect more deaths compared to a younger population, etc.
    – JJJ
    Mar 26, 2021 at 5:53
  • @JJJ yeah, it's not going to be easy to measure. The OP was too naive.
    – Allure
    Mar 26, 2021 at 12:31
  • I appreciate the effort put into this answer, but I don't think it's very useful. The COVID-19 case numbers between developing and developed countries are not really comparable because developing countries don't have the resources and infrastructure to test people in the same manner as developed countries do.
    – Philipp
    Oct 6, 2021 at 14:47

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