Democracies have responded more effectively to COVID-19 than autocracies, study shows

13 May 2020

Adobe Stock 332038707 COVID 19 New Zealand
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Autocracies imposed harsher lockdowns but democracies have responded more effectively to COVID-19.

The study, Democracy, Culture and Contagion: Political Regimes and Countries Responsiveness to Covid-19, published today as a working paper that will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, examined 111 countries and their responses to the pandemic, using the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT). It found that even though autocracies imposed more restrictions on travel and the movement of people, geographic mobility declined about 20% more sharply in democracies when they introduced the same policies.

Despite autocracies introducing more stringent lockdowns and using more privacy-intrusive contact tracing, democracies have been more effective in meeting the policy objective of reducing geographic mobility in their countries in order to curb the spread of the virus. Mobility declines in democracies were particularly pronounced related to “non-essential” activities, such as entertainment and parks.

“People are more willing to follow the rules if they trust their government, which they are more likely to do if the government is accountable. That is my interpretation of our findings,” said Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Work.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding at a time when democracy is in decline. More countries have lost than gained civil and political rights each year over the past 14 years. And with China’s forceful lockdown containing the spread of the virus, while cases in Europe and the United States are still going up, many are naturally worried that COVID-19 will exacerbate the decline of democracy. Our findings suggest that they shouldn’t be because democracies have actually done better in reducing movement to contain the spread of the virus. Good examples are South Korean, Taiwan and New Zealand, which are flourishing democracies,” Frey said.

The study also found that culture shaped how people reacted to the government’s policy responses. Using Geert Hofstede’s classic measure of individualist-collectivist culture, and data from the World Value Survey (WVS), it found that travel and movement fell more significantly in collectivist countries, where people emphasize group loyalty, conformity and obedience towards one’s superiors. Such a culture, the authors find, makes collective action easier, such as a coordinated and coherent response to COVID-19.

“Democracies and countries with more collectivist cultural traits have been most effective in responding to the pandemic,” said Frey. “What countries like China, Taiwan and South Korea have in common is that they are highly collectivist.”

“Past studies show that people in the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom are particularly individualistic,” adds Dr Frey. “They put a lot more emphasis on standing out, being creative, and are less norm-abiding, which helps explain why they are more innovative and take out more patents. But there are downsides to such a culture. As we show in the paper, individualism makes collective action much harder. The price of innovation and dynamism might be less resilience to catastrophes.”

“Think of countries like Taiwan and South Korea, where wearing a mask to protect fellow citizens is the norm. Naturally, such a culture makes it easier to respond collectively when disaster strikes.”

The study, which has been accepted to the CEPR Covid Economics Discussion Paper series, found that:

- Autocracies have introduced harsher measures to restrict travel and the movement of people but with less effect. People in democracies seem more willing to abide by the rules, probably because they have greater trust in their governments.

- Countries with collectivist cultural traits are better at organizing collective action when disaster strikes. The study found that more collectivist cultures were more abiding to the lockdown rules introduced by their governments.