VoxEU Column COVID-19 Politics and economics

Covid-19 and the future of democracy

Democracy has been in recession for over a decade and many fear that Covid-19 will accelerate this trend. This column analyses the stringency and effectiveness of various countries’ policy responses to Covid-19. While autocratic regimes tend to take more stringent policy measures, such measures tend to be less effective in reducing mobility in autocratic countries compared to democracies. Comparing countries with a collectivist versus an individualist culture shows that the former have been more successful in taking measures to reduce mobility.

The Covid-19 pandemic is unfolding at a time when democracy is in decline. According to data compiled by Freedom House (2020), democracy has been in a recession for over a decade, and more countries have lost rather than gained civil and political rights each year. 

A key concern is that Covid-19 will turn the democratic recession into a depression, with authoritarianism sweeping across the globe like a pandemic. As the New York Times puts it, “China and some of its acolytes are pointing to Beijing’s success in coming to grips with the coronavirus pandemic as a strong case for authoritarian rule” (Schmemann 2020). Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has called its forceful lockdown “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment in history”. This raises the question: Is China is an exception, or have autocratic regimes in general been able to take more stringent policy measures to restrain people from moving around and spreading the virus? And if so, have they been more effective?

To explore these questions, we examine the institutional and cultural underpinnings of governments’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic (Frey et al. 2020). To measure the strictness of the policies introduced to fight the pandemic across countries, we use the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), which provides information on several measures, including school and workplace closings, travel restrictions, bans on public gatherings, and stay-at-home requirements. To capture the effectiveness of these responses in reducing travel and movement in order to curb the spread of the virus, we employ Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports. 

Figure 1 shows that travel fell in a number of selected countries as more stringent policy measures were introduced. However, the figure also shows that there is large dispersion in cross-country mobility, even for similar levels of policy stringency. 

Figure 1 Lockdown measures and cross-country reduction in mobility

Sources: OxCGRT; Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports 

Have authoritarian governments been more effective in reducing mobility?

To be sure, it is possible that political divisions and strong business interests make it harder to introduce stringent lockdowns in democracies. To test this, we employ the democracy index of Freedom House (2020). We find that more autocratic regimes have indeed introduced stricter lockdowns and have relied more on privacy-intrusive measures like contract tracing. However, our regression analysis also suggests that when democracies employ the same mobility restrictions as autocratic regimes, they experience steeper declines in mobility. This result also holds when we add a host of controls, like state capacity, GDP per capita, latitude experience with past epidemics, as well as country and time fixed effects. Using a complementary measure on political and civil rights, we similarly find that greater freedom is associated with greater reductions in movement and travel (Frey et al. 2020). 

Though these correlations cannot be interpreted as causal, they provide suggestive evidence that while autocratic regimes tend to introduce stricter lockdowns, they are less effective in reducing travel. Indeed, while China’s strict lockdown has received most media attention, other East Asian countries have arguably mounted a more effective response to Covid-19. 

Cultural values and the effectiveness of mobility restrictions

Another theory is that some cultures are more obedient than others, prompting people to better follow more stringent lockdown measures. While societies differ on many cultural dimensions, cross-cultural psychologists view the individualism-collectivism distinction as the main divider (Heine 2007, Henrich et al. 2010, Schulz et al. 2019). 

Scholars have shown that individualism has a dynamic advantage leading to a higher economic growth rate by giving social status rewards to non-conformism and innovation (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2011). In particular, individualistic cultures, like those of the US Sweden, or the UK, are more innovative and take out more patents (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2017).

The flipside of an individualistic culture, which encourages experimentation and innovation, is that it can make collective action, such as a coordinated response to a pandemic, more difficult. This is because people in more individualistic societies tend to pursue their own interest rather than the collective good. Collectivism, on the other hand, which emphasises group loyalty, conformity and obedience towards one’s superiors, makes collective action easier (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2015). 

To measure the variation in individualism-collectivism across countries, we employ Hofstede’s (2001) widely used scale which integrates questions about goals, achievement-orientation, and family ties. In addition, we construct an index on attitudes towards obedience based on data from the World Value Survey (WVS). Our regression analysis shows that similar levels of policy stringency reduced mobility less in individualistic cultures, and more in obedient ones. Figure 2 presents the result graphically. It suggests that collectivist countries have mounted a more coordinated response to Covid-19 in terms of reducing movement and travel. We also find that movement related to non-essential activities, like going to parks, exhibits a particularly sharp mobility declines (Frey et al. 2020).

Figure 2 Individualism, obedience and the reduction in mobility

Note: Each dot in the charts represent, for each country, the change in mobility index that is not explained by the policy stringency index. The obedience index is the first component of a Principal Component Analysis based on World Value Survey (WVS) data.
Sources: Authors’ own calculations based on Hofstede (2001); WVS; OxCGRT; Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.

Concluding remarks

Democracy has been in recession for over a decade (Diamond 2019) and many fear that Covid-19 will accelerate this trend. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has seized even greater power and threatened martial law-style enforcement of a monthlong lockdown. And on 30 March 2020, the Hungarian Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act, which grants Viktor Orbán’s government unprecedented emergency powers for an indefinite period of time.

Judging by how autocratic regimes have responded to the crisis, however, we do not expect that the democratic recession will accelerate. First, the lack of transparency in autocratic regimes has been an undisputable drawback in fighting the pandemic. In Turkmenistan, people have been arrested solely for discussing the outbreak in public and medical doctors are banned from diagnosing Covid-19. And while China successfully mobilised a strong national response once President Xi Jinping gave green light, the initial lack of transparency delayed decisive measures to curb the virus before it spread across China and globally (Ang 2020). Second, our research suggests that even though autocracies have introduced more stringent lockdowns, democracies have been more effective in reducing travel and the movement of people in their countries. Thus, while autocrats often seek to capitalize on perceived threats, their handling of the pandemic on these dimensions seems unlikely to look appealing to the outside world.

China is not just an autocratic regime; it also has a strong state (Fukuyama 2011) and a highly collectivist culture (Talhem et al. 2014). But the same is true of democratic countries like South Korea and Taiwan. Building on a large literature, we find that a country’s capacity to enforce its mobility restrictions, as well as its culture, are more relevant variables in explaining how countries have fared during the pandemic. Following in the footsteps of cross-cultural psychologists, we show that collectivist societies have been more successful in managing the outbreak. Our findings speak to the intuition that a collectivist culture, which rewards conformity and group loyalty, and obedience towards one’s superiors, makes collective action easier (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2015; Schulz et al. 2019). In East Asian countries, which are highly collectivist on Hofstede’s (2001) scale, the habit of mask-wearing to protect fellow citizens markedly contrasts with Western attitudes.

However, while collectivist societies are well placed to deal with epidemics that require collective action, collectivist cultures have historically experienced slower economic growth (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2011), less dynamism and innovation (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2017), and tend to focus on incremental innovation rather than radical breakthroughs (Chua et al. 2019).  

Fighting Covid-19 will require coordination to curb the spread of the virus, but also innovation in order to find treatments and vaccines. Pandemics are global by definition and hence a global response that leverages the innovative capacity of individualist countries, and the coordination and production capabilities of collectivist ones, will be needed.


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