The Houses of Parliament at the end of an empty Westminster Bridge in central London on March 24, 2020, after Britain ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP / Justin Talis

As Western democracies struggle to find an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the world’s liberal torchbearers have found inspiration in the most illiberal of places: authoritarian states.

In Italy, long Europe’s Covid-19 epicenter, pleas for medical aid were first answered not by European neighbors, but by China, Cuba and Russia. France and Spain received 1.5 million Chinese masks before the European Union could muster a response, while in the Czech Republic and nearby Serbia, leaders praised Beijing for the speed of its response to their pleas. Czech President Miloš Zeman noted that China “was the only country that helped us.”

There is no doubt that this narrative is one that authoritarians are helping to spread. China, for one, has aggressively propagated the view that President Xi Jinping is leading the global battle against the virus (ignoring the fact that the disease started in China and was initially spread by Beijing’s preference for secrecy over transparency).

And yet when the coronavirus crisis is finally tamed, the ability of authoritarians to wrestle death from an invisible foe, at least temporarily, will prompt a second look. While the reaction from many liberal democrats will be to ignore autocratic successes, the virus’ toll – in both human and economic terms – could make that impossible.

Western democracy in its current form is demonstrating its vulnerability. As a result, it faces an almost inevitable political reckoning. Solutions like those imposed by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – from mandatory stay-at-home orders to tracking people’s movements – may be inconsistent with a free and open society, but anyone clinging to life on a ventilator would probably trade some personal freedoms for another breath of air.

How far will the pendulum swing between liberalism and authoritarianism and even totalitarianism? That question is no longer academic; it’s playing out in real time. It is also a question the world must be prepared to answer sooner rather than later.

By now, many are familiar with what’s required to “flatten the curve” – Orwellian measures, such as governments monitoring the health of individuals without their overt consent, restricting travel and forcing the closure of businesses. 

China’s Communist government managed to curb the initial spread of the virus by using data from people’s smartphones, facial-recognition cameras and self-reported body temperatures. Similar tactics were used in semi-authoritarian Singapore. In both places, failure to comply with official orders was met with harsh fines, arrest or worse.

Liberal democracies, meanwhile, have been far slower to adopt or enforce such measures. In South Africa, a two-week home quarantine was largely ignored in its early stages – despite the presence of soldiers on the street. At the start of the outbreak in Italy, cafes and restaurants remained open as people went about their lives as normal. Even in the US, which now has the most cases of any country in the world, President Donald Trump has resisted making protective measures, such as masks, mandatory (they are “recommended”).

These reactions are understandable. In democracies, suspending civil liberties such as freedom of movement or speech would normally be political suicide. But these are not normal times. Responding to the threat posed by the coronavirus may require atypical, even unconstitutional, solutions, from blanket digital surveillance to the conscripting of health workers.

The challenge, of course, will come after the crisis ends. While the masks will eventually come off and “normal life” will resume, leaders will be tempted to retain some of the policies that fostered containment. Amid this new reality, democracies may never look the same again. But what they look like tomorrow will depend largely on what people do today.

To some, the options are stark. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says the world must choose between two poles: indefinite “totalitarian surveillance” or “citizen empowerment.” Hungary and Armenia are the most recent states choosing the former, a trend that Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights, worries will only continue. “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following closely, if not on the heels of, a health epidemic,” she says.

But the choice for liberal states need not be so black and white. While never-ending surveillance of health trends would mean an erosion of personal privacy, if implemented with a high degree of openness, transparency and public support, such policies could land more toward the middle of Harari’s “two poles” continuum. This formula is in essence what enabled South Korea and Taiwan – two of Asia’s most open democracies – to beat back the coronavirus epidemic, and to do so without a China-like iron fist.

In the post-Covid-19 era, democracies could borrow authoritarian tactics without abandoning their liberal values. While some level of state interference is warranted in a global crisis like this, there’s no reason civil liberties must be abandoned forever. Rather, through a more consultative form of governing, in which leaders are more transparent with their decision-making processes, public trust can be strengthened and individuals could be encouraged to embrace a deeper sense of civic duty and collective responsibility.

We already see a version of this in places like the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Singapore. These are not free-wheeling liberal-democratic societies in the Western mold. Yet citizens enjoy a high degree of intellectual and cultural openness, safety and personal freedom. All three countries have limited the spread of Covid-19 through robust testing, clear guidelines and strict control measures – tactics that require a high level of trust in government.

By contrast, in the US, the failure to act quickly and decisively could result in many preventable deaths.

In the not-too-distant future, democracies everywhere will need to reckon with this disparity. China’s brand of authoritarian control could never work in the West and other open societies. But a system that rigidly prioritizes individual freedoms at the expense of the collective good isn’t working either.

This article was provided by Project Syndicate, which holds copyright.

Greg C. Bruno is the author of “Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.” He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.

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Greg C Bruno

Greg C Bruno is the author of Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet. As a journalist his work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian and other international outlets. He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.