Autocratic regimes less effective than democracies in responding to COVID-19

26 June 2023

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Their analysis shows that on average, social capital is approximately 30% higher in democratic societies.

Autocratic states were less effective at responding to the pandemic, despite enforcing stringent policy measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, according to a new study from academics at the University of Oxford, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation.

The Oxford researchers analysed mobility trends and government policy responses across over 130 countries from the beginning to the peak of the first lockdown period, from March to May 2020. The study finds that autocracies introduced tougher lockdowns and relied more on contact tracing to control the disease. However, people in democracies were generally more compliant with the lockdown measures implemented by their governments.

Lead author, Carl-Benedikt Frey, Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Work and Dieter Schwarz Associate Professor of AI and Work, Oxford Internet Institute said, “In our study, we test the idea that democracies function better due to higher levels of social capital and explore this concept in the context of Covid-19 policy compliance. We find that democracies exhibit higher levels of social capital on average, which we also note is associated with greater policy compliance”.

In the paper, the researchers explore the potential underlying mechanisms driving the relationship between democracy and compliance. Their analysis shows that on average, social capital is approximately 30% higher in democratic societies.

Frey said, “Contrary to the popular perception that autocratic countries have been more effective in coping with the pandemic, the study finds that people in the most consolidated democracies have been more compliant with governments’ policy measures aimed at reducing mobility even without implementing draconian restrictions.

“Our findings suggest that the reason why autocracies have taken more radical measures to reduce the movement of people relative to democracies is precisely that they have been less successful in implementing them. Further research is needed in this area to better understand these disparities and help inform future policymaking in response to any new pandemics”.