Democracy, authoritarianism and the virus

Democracy, authoritarianism and the virus

Is Indonesian democracy a hindrance in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic? In Indonesia’s case, by any measure, President Joko Widodo’s administration’s policy on dealing with Covid-19 has been disappointing, with the government acting both too late to prevent the spread of the virus and too weak to deal with it effectively. 

It is tempting to blame this on Indonesian democracy. Thanks to the failure of democratic countries in Europe and North America in taking preemptive steps to deal with the pandemic, the old debate of whether authoritarianism or democracy is better in dealing with a crisis is being resurrected. 

China, for one, has been touting its political model: that its decisive actions in imposing a strict quarantine in Wuhan city and other regions had managed to limit the spread of virus. Vietnam has been successful and widely praised for its ability to tackle the virus despite being a developing country. Singapore, a semi-authoritarian country, also did a good job in dealing with the initial onslaught of the virus and the second wave of infections. Democratic states in Europe, on the other hand, failed to impose strict quarantines, resulting in many deaths. Similarly, in the United States, New York late imposition of quarantines caused the number of people infected and dying from the coronavirus in the United States to soar.

On the other hand, critics rightfully noted that had China not ham-fistedly attempted to silence rumors about the virus and to essentially ignore its spread until it was too late, the virus it would not have spread globally. Furthermore, Beijing’s strict controls and manipulation of information make its data questionable, with many examples contradicting its official claims, such as the long lines of ash urns in Wuhan’s funeral houses that raised questions on the veracity of the number of people dying from the virus. Similarly, authoritarian Iran is currently the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the Middle East as it pooh-poohed its severity back in January, claiming it as a US plot to destabilize the country. And nobody believes North Korea’s claim that it so far has zero infection.

In contrast, people are pointing out New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan, Exhibit A of how democratic states managed to keep the spread of virus in check. While South Korea was earlier caught off guard by the virus due to the secretive sect that spread the virus, in the end it managed to deal with the virus through effective testing and social distancing. Even in the United States, in contrast to New York, which is currently the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, California and Washington State managed to keep the number of deaths and hospitalization low thanks to their successful quarantine policies. 

Thus, regime type is actually not a good indicator to determine whether a state will botch Covid-19 pandemic management. Rather, the question is whether the spread of the virus is politicized enough to hurt the effort to contain it. The politicization of the virus leads to two problems. First is the restriction of information. As mentioned above, China’s decision to censor the news of the spread of the virus started the pandemic. By the time the Chinese government decided to tackle the virus, it had spread all over the world, and other governments severely underestimated the threat, believing the Covid-19 as only slightly worse than the common cold. 

Regime type is actually not a good indicator to determine whether a state will botch Covid-19 pandemic management.

Second, politicizing the virus creates distractions in both the policymaking and in consistency of the message. In Italy, squabbles between the center-left alliance of the Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement that dominate the central government, and the right-wing anti-immigrant League caused distractions in the earlier days of the crisis, allowing the virus to spread out of control. The League pushed for quarantining every single flight passenger from China, which might actually have worked in containing the virus, but the government dismissed it as a racist policy. And this is followed by weeks of blame-shifting and a war of words between the government and opposition, hampering an effective response to the virus. 

In Spain, despite that they were aware the virus had already ravaged Italy, the minority leftist government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was unwilling face a dent in its political support in order to halt large public gatherings, allowing thousands to attend soccer games and permitting a massive feminist rally in Madrid, accelerating the spread of the virus. Then it clashed with local governments in conservative-dominated Madrid and Catalonia, further hampering effective response to the virus. 

In the United States, hyper partisanship between the Republican and the Democrat party caused the pandemic to be used as political football, hampering the effort to tackle the virus, especially as it struck during a presidential election year. President Donald J Trump’s goal was to make everyone think the situation was normal and under control, while the Democrats were stressing how the president was caught off guard and unprepared on the severity of the virus. 

In countries that are successfully dealing with Covid-19, such as Austria, Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, the pandemic was not politicized at all. Rather, in general, after early stumbles by some of the governments who underestimated the threat from the virus thanks to China’s underplaying the severity of the threat and the World Health Organization’s unwillingness to recommend travel bans, they took decisive steps, such as imposing a total lockdown to minimize the spread of the virus further, followed by consistent messaging to citizens, ensuring people feel that their government is in control.

And this brings us to Indonesia, where the politicization of the virus is rampant, with both the government and the opposition sniping and undermining each other. The Joko administration in the beginning was severely underplaying the risk of the virus, fearing that it would hurt the economy, and later, felt humiliated and upstaged when Anies Baswedan, the governor of Jakarta, was forcing the issue into the open by releasing the number of people infected and later stating his intention to lock down the capital. Anies was rebuked for overstepping his authority. Even though the 2022 national gubernatorial elections and 2024 presidential election are still so far away, Joko is without a clear successor, and Anies is seen as the political standard bearer for the Islamists’ cause, which puts him as the vocal point of the opposition. Thus everything Anies does is seen as an attempt to undermine Joko’s authority and to score political points at the president’s expense.

Not surprisingly, Indonesia’s Covid-19 pandemic policy was confusing, with regional leaders imposing their own versions of quarantines. The central government remains unwilling to impose a national lockdown, fearing the economic and political cost, not to mention the implication of vindicating Anies. As a result, the Joko administration chose a middle road: allowing local regions to impose lockdown as long as they ask permission from the central government first. By doing that, the political and economic fallout from lockdowns would end up in the local governments’ lap, while should lockdowns are successful in limiting the spread of the virus, part of the credits would go to the central government for allowing them.

While it is early to say whether Indonesia will be able to weather the pandemic in the end, it is clear that politicization of the Covid-19 pandemic hinders effective disaster management, resulting in policy chaos, disinformation and rising human costs.


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