How Dictatorships Make Pandemics Worse

Dictatorships make you sick. Not spiritually, not morally (though both may apply), but actually sick. Consider the responses to coronavirus by China and Iran, two authoritarian regimes whose rank mismanagement and compulsion to cover-up have driven the world to a full-blown pandemic.

As much as our own government’s response to COVID-19 has been flawed, the epidemic itself is yet another piece of evidence that the United States should be in the business of exporting democracy, rule of law, and transparency. Yet in the last decade, America has turned away from that democratizing mission, and the winds on both left and right suggest we may not turn back anytime soon. So we’ll keep getting sick.

Coronavirus is believed to have sprung from the wet markets of Wuhan Province, China. This sort of animal-to-human leap famously brought us SARS, the H1N1 strain of influenza (which caused the deadly 1918 Spanish flu and the 2010 “swine flu” epidemic), and HIV. The first cases in China were in early December, and after Dr. Li Wenliang warned colleagues later that month, he was warned off by Communist security enforcers. Early strains of the virus sequenced were ordered destroyed in early January. Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping ordered containment—of both the virus and information about it—on January 7. Only on January 20 did the Chinese government allow any public disclosure about the deadly outbreak, and precious weeks were lost. Weeks in which the world might have done more to prevent a pandemic, had both the scientific genome sequencing and the dangers been shared. 

Unsurprisingly, Xi’s prime concern was not lives at risk, or containment of the virus, but rather the nation’s and his reputation, place in the global supply chain and his grip on power. In this, Xi is much like every other dictator who prioritizes everything above the well-being of his own people, let alone others’.

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