Coronavirus crisis has exposed the weaknesses of democracy

Monday March 23 2020

China is back to work barely three months after the advent of Covid-19. Their approach to dealing with the virus was criticised as “authoritarian.”

They, however, succeeded in eradicating the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) praised China for its drastic response to the corona crisis.

Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, having had an experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), made a quick decision to implement rigorous detection and strict quarantine measures.

In addition, citizens voluntarily locked themselves at home and worked from there. The governments banned mass gatherings. The people obeyed the directives without raising a voice.

Elsewhere in more democratic nation they called this behaviour “managed paternalism”.

In the meantime, the virus was spreading across the world. Italy, one of the hard-hit countries, took time to consider a lockdown. The leaders probably thought that the measures would be too drastic for a democratic country.


This was a huge mistake because the only known effective measure of dealing with such a disease is through restricting social distancing.

Democracy often undermines effective solutions in times of crisis. In his book review of The Confidence Trap: A history of democracy in crisis from World War 1 to the present by David Runciman and John Keane noted:

Democracies have been littered with confusion, foolish brinkmanship and delayed bounce-back. They’re poor at anticipating crises; they take forever to read writings on the wall; they’re easily distracted by frivolous media events and fake crises; and they are sedated by their track record of success (that’s the confidence trap). Burdened by ‘elections and fickle public opinion and constitutional proprieties’, democracies typically lack a sense of urgency or proportion. They muddle their way into crises triggered by such anti-democratic forces as war and market failure. Then they twiddle their thumbs, usually for so long that finally they’re forced to spring into action. The picture of democracies during crisis periods ‘is not pretty, and it creates a pervasive feeling of disappointment.

In one of the WHO press briefings, one of the officials expressed concern that many countries are making mistakes by procrastinating on how to respond to the current crisis. He encouraged policy makers to make quick decisions without fear that they will make mistakes.

Italy could have saved many lives had they imposed a lockdown from the start, which of course they had to implement later after the fact.

If there is any lesson that we should learn from Italy, it is the speed of implementing strategies that have worked elsewhere. The purpose of a lockdown is to enable authorities to know where the sick are and assist them. When everyone is moving, the infection could spread widely and the resultant crisis may overwhelm the healthcare system.

In any quadratic equation, there are constants, otherwise it will be impossible to solve a complex problem. Dealing with an unknown variable like the spread of viruses, there must be some constants otherwise any intervention will be an exercise in futility.

There is no exact measure to trigger a reaction like imposing a total lockdown. In fact, the outcomes will be better by reacting with only one case but policy makers fear that one case does not warrant extreme measures.

Indeed, people on the street will say that the authorities are using a hammer to kill a fly. But that is precisely how it should be done.

In a context like ours where we have overcrowded transport systems and shanties in urban areas, we should have acted like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

We still have a chance to impose strict travel restrictions. It is perhaps cheaper to pay public transport vehicles to stop operations for two weeks and limit the possibility of spreading the virus into rural areas.

Such a decision may sound mean but that is precisely what we need to do to minimise the spread of the virus.

In the event that the disease runs ahead and manifests in crowded spaces, it will be impossible to make statements like isolate the patient. Many of the people live in crowded neighbourhoods with single rooms and isolation isn’t a solution.

We therefore must proactively make decisions in line with our context. We should even use the military to protect the most vulnerable in society.

Although the government has made great strides in responding to coronavirus by closing schools and colleges, let’s not hesitate to make further difficult decisions of imposing strict measures to ensure that the virus is contained.

We must learn from Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan because they have had previous experiences with virus outbreaks. Today, they have managed to contain the crisis despite bordering China where the crisis started.

There are also invaluable lessons to learn from China.

Democracy has often failed in times of crisis. Although many people have not fully comprehended the magnitude of Covid-19, those who understand have the moral obligation to explain it to as many people such that the interventions should not be seen as undemocratic.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.