The novel coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on public health in most countries, but it has caused particular destruction in five of the most populous and powerful democracies in the world: the United States, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These states have five of the highest death tolls and caseloads from COVID-19 of any countries, and all have struggled to control the pandemic. Democracy itself is not the reason for their public health failures. Other democracies, from consolidated and wealthy ones such as Germany and Taiwan to politically shaky and middle-income ones such as Thailand, have developed effective responses that have minimized the virus’s toll. Some democracies, such as Australia and Canada, have not only produced effectual public health responses but also taken robust measures to mitigate the pandemic’s effect on inequality. Several authoritarian states, such as Vietnam, have adopted policies that curtailed the virus’s spread; other authoritarian states, including Iran and Russia, have failed in managing the pandemic.
Instead, the vast social and economic inequalities in these five ethnically and racially diverse countries have made the pandemic harder to control. These states have failed to handle the novel coronavirus in part because they have never addressed their historical internal divides, which COVID-19 has brutally revealed. In addition, leaders in these states who have attacked political systems and social cohesion have hindered the pandemic response.
Beyond revealing inequalities and devastating public health, the pandemic has had two dangerous effects in all of these countries: COVID-19 actually has made socioeconomic inequality worse, possibly for years to come, and has significantly exacerbated democratic regression. In these five states, caseloads and death tolls of the novel coronavirus are falling hardest on racial, ethnic, and sometimes religious minorities and on the poor; poor and minority communities significantly overlap, and many of these same citizens have the preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to getting extremely sick or dying from COVID-19. The pandemic seems to be further entrenching economic and social inequalities, and some leaders are passing pandemic-era measures that could further hurt poor and minority groups. Furthermore, as often has happened during past major emergencies, political leaders have taken advantage of the emergency to corrode democratic norms and institutions—in these five democracies and across the globe.
Yet the coronavirus pandemic, like many other past crises, simultaneously has caused this damage and offered the chance for societies to pull together and think big about potential policy reforms. Some politicians are finding that promoting major policy reforms in the wake of the devastating pandemic could boost their popularity and win support across the political aisle; in some smaller democracies, such as New Zealand, politicians who have fostered societal unity and equality and embraced major reforms during the pandemic have won electoral victories. Although no solution will be one-size-fits-all in these five democracies, policymakers could utilize the emergency of the pandemic to promote large-scale structural reforms to reverse democratic regression and address aspects of socioeconomic inequality. Because these five countries are among the biggest and most powerful democracies in the world, any steps they take to address their inequalities and combat democratic regression will set examples for states around the world. Yet, if they allow COVID-19 to worsen inequality and accelerate democratic backsliding, they will set examples for other countries as well.
This paper was made possible by the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.
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