You’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that Russian government voices and assorted disguised mouthpieces on social media have been busy claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic shows that, when it really counts, authoritarian government is superior to democratic government. Authoritarian regimes have deflected infection curves downward by employing draconian methods that democratic regimes have proven either unwilling or unable to use. Look at China and look at Italy . . and then the United States: case closed.
CCP propaganda is softly harmonizing the argument and some here in Singapore quietly, or not so quietly, agree with it. Many Singaporean elites, particularly of the ethnic Chinese persuasion, are ever so schizophrenic about China. This is no place to draw out an extended analysis, so suffice it to say that while they stress their differences from China, many are proud of having advised the Chinese leadership over the years on how to perfect an efficient one-party state operation. China aside, most older Singaporeans prefer on general principle their managed, contained, predictable, and stable arrangements to the cacophonous mood swings and casino-like fiscal habits of American democracy. These days especially who, really, can blame them?
And not only in Singapore. Some governments more than agree with the marketing pitch, having politically weaponized the case to suppress street protests in recent months using the pandemic as pretext. Still other governments with no protests to quash have implied the same pretext for major power grabs: Hungary, for example, is by no reasonable definition any longer a democracy thanks to Viktor Orban’s viral coup.
But even supposing no ulterior motive for making this argument, it’s still wrong. What matters most in crises like the current one is not the ideological character of government, but rather three other inter-functional characteristics set deep in the social fabric: (1) whether most people believe their government actually cares about them, so that they will do as instructed by appropriate authorities; (2) whether people trust their governments to have been thoughtful, provident, and competent in preparation for public health emergencies, such that following instructions will prove effective; and (3) whether the people themselves more or less cohere as a community, regardless of how they assess current government leaders, so that they will pull together more or less spontaneously in a pinch.
In other words, what matters is some composite of the quality of a society’s political compact, the planning sagacity and administrative competence of its political/administrative apparatus, and the level of trust within the society itself. These three variables do not break down in any simple or predictable way along regime type designations. Authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes alike can score high or low on all three measures, and both kinds of regimes have illustrated that during the COVID-19 crisis.
Three other more happenstantial factors, also having from little to nothing to do with ideology and regime type, matter as well. Among them (so not meant to be a complete list) are: the size of the polity; current media culture; and the personal quality of high political leadership. If we take these six factors together, three integral to a country’s social fabric and three less firmly tied to it, we can assemble a useful typology to assess the many observed differences in national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and their relative effectiveness. We’ll look briefly at three countries, China, the United States, and Singapore, to illustrate; but as we will see, the typology works for any comparative purpose or set of examples.
Trust, Competence, and Social Cohesion
Do most Chinese citizens think their government cares about them? By and large, yes. The CCP’s 70-year record gives its current leadership the right to expect high marks. On the deliverables that have mattered most to most people—which for historio-cultural reasons does not rank individual political agency, let alone multiparty electoral democracy, high on the priority list—the Party has delivered the goods, at least over the past four decades: a positive bending arc of material prosperity; basic order and security; and the restoration of national dignity.
Do most Chinese think the government has planned and resourced well for public health emergencies? Hard to say for a lack of reliable polling data, but from the outside it looks like serious effort has been devoted to the issue within the limits of China’s development stage.
Do Han people in China, at least, enjoy high levels of social trust? Yes, and arguably it sheds benignly on the affinity-with-government factor, which forgives many sins by way of petty corruption, elite self-dealing, and the financial system’s generally inefficient allocation of capital.
Now the United States. Do most Americans think the Federal government cares about them at times like these? Not really. A thick blanket of cynicism has pervaded American society in recent decades. Typical Americans think the system is rigged, and Congress is held in low esteem. Most people laugh when politicians claim that they put service to the public interest before their own.
Oddly, however, most voters do trust and like their own congressman even as they disparage nearly all others and “the system” itself. This suggests, among other things, that discrete local reservoirs of social trust are typically higher than the large, distant one centered on Washington, D.C. That means that empowered state and local governments have a better chance of producing good results in a public health crisis than a centralized response directed from the Federal center in Washington.
Nor are the relevant Federal bureaucracies trusted. The CDC ranks fairly high, or at least it did before it screwed up the COVID-19 testing kits—and before at least 25 million people saw a video of freshman California Congresswoman Katie Porter shaming CDC Director Robert R. Redfield on March 15 into agreeing to use his authority to authorize Federal payment for COVID-19 testing. But despite questionable evidence from a recent Pew poll, do most Americans trust FEMA, HHS, DHS, the FDA, or the VA? No way. Indeed, another recent poll by LX/Morning Consult, published April 2, finds that only 30 percent of Americans would trust an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine enough to want to get it urgently.
Do most Americans think the government has planned and resourced wisely? Many had assumed so, since relevant past performance was not so bad. But the current crisis has revealed a new truth: Neither the Federal government nor most state governments, nor relevant private sector companies either, has planned and resourced adequately. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 11, said that “it is a failing” of the system that not enough tests for COVID-19 exist, he added that: “The system is not really geared to what we need right now—what you are asking for.” Many Americans were shocked to hear this.
Dr. Fauci’s private analysis of why it isn’t thus geared should interest us, since he’s been around long enough to know what’s gone wrong in recent decades. Alas, he did not elaborate, and no one asked him to do so for an obvious reason: Everyone who has been paying attention to this subject recognizes the downward dialectic that has been at play. Although President Obama spoke directly and eloquently of the need to prepare for future pandemics, even his own White House did not consistently ask for—and successive Congresses have not consistently appropriated—sufficient funds for proper preparations. Some politicians, notably Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), in her role as chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees, have habitually stripped public health emergency preparation funds out of every budget they have seen for at least a dozen years running. They have done the same with nearly all infrastructure investment across the board.
It’s not just money that has been lacking, but also relevant ideas. The list of neglected proposals to augment medical preparedness and pandemic protection offered over the years by experts, and by a few enlightened politicians like Dr. Bill Frist, is long and trails back many years. Extant and potential tragedy adorns such neglect because it takes consistent work over time to build up a functional public health infrastructure and, like all other aspects of critical infrastructure, it is an inherently governmental obligation that the private sector cannot be relied upon to provide.
Social capital and cohesion? No: American society, significantly more diverse than China’s to start with, has been hemorrhaging social trust for decades. Notable regional variations exist, the differences owed to ingrained cultural inheritances and immigration/migration patterns. But the society as a whole? As Robert Putnam put it long ago already, we’ve been mostly “bowling alone” in recent decades.
Now Singapore. Do most Singaporeans believe their government cares about them? Yes. Do they trust the technocracy to have planned and budgeted efficiently? Absolutely. And does the society enjoy deep levels of social trust? Tricky question.
There are objective reasons for a lack of trust among the three main hearth communities here, and try as the government may for more than 50 years, social harmony in Singapore is more of the live-and-let-live variety than of the one big happy kampong ideal. But it seems good enough for government work. People of all hearth cultures here do expect and generally get basic respect from others. That fundamental fairness is owed to all is expressed in an extremely polite public etiquette. So many people may be faking it, but they’re mostly faking it to make it, and most of them make it most of the time.
Polity Size, Media Culture, and Leadership
Now let’s look at the happenstantial variables, first the size of the polity. It’s as obvious now as it was to Montesquieu centuries ago that city-state scale conduces to efficiency in management and administration. The size of Singapore allows a level of planning, physical control of space and resources, and information management. That is why the government here has been able to use a combination of temperature monitoring, testing, tracking, social distancing, excellent medical care, and, more recently, border control measures, to flatten the infection curve and keep deaths near zero without flattening the economy at the same time. It waited until April 6 to ratchet up social distancing measures until the data indicated that it needed to do so, but its small size and efficient management capabilities allowed it to do that very expeditiously when the time came.
This is something that much harder to achieve in huge sprawling places like China and the United States—especially, in the U.S. case, if government insists on privileging the center over states and localities. Singaporean levels of efficiency and effectiveness could not be fully achieved in the United States even if resources and leadership were allowed to align with the flexibility of the federal system via rational subsidiarity. U.S. authorities could not, for example, monitor and control movement in a city like Detroit during a pandemic to the same extent that Singaporean authorities can do so on an island city-state. But they could come vastly closer to that standard than they do now.
As important, perhaps, there is a broad expectation in Singaporean society that since everything is planned and managed in the Red Dot, and deep confidence that the government is pretty good at what it does, public health execution in a crisis will be pretty good, too. The government is thus presumed innocent of major functional faults until proven otherwise. It starts with a buffer of trust.
So far, the government has not disappointed. Its talking tone has been near perfect, and it hasn’t screwed up walking the walk. The recent surge of cases in foreign worker dormitories is arguably an exception to the government’s stellar performance, but those cases are reasonably isolated from the 5.7 million citizens and permanent residents here. These cohorts are made up mostly of young males, and so far cases have been mostly mild and few if any have required ICU level care. New cases among citizens and permanent residents are lower than they were before the dormitories’ outbreak. Deaths per million residents in Singapore equals two; it equals 144 in the United States. Singapore is one of the safest places in the advanced world right now, and the scale of the place goes far to explain the positive outcomes.
As to media culture, which is obviously less independent of ideology and regime type considerations than the other two happenstantial factors, China’s is highly regulated. People have to depend on government media for basic information about public health crises. This constitutes a double-edged sword.
In a single-party Leninist (but no longer Marxist) state, government typically has trouble assembling, sharing, and telling itself the truth. It’s standard operating procedure to shoot the messenger bringing bad news, so messengers often don’t bring it. That ends up blinding senior leadership to what is going on until it eventually finds out the hard way, and then needs to play catch up.
This is why late-stage, Brezhnev-era Soviet authorities never really knew the true, debased state of their economy until it was too late to redress it, and it is basically why China got off to a poor start in dealing with the current coronavirus outbreak. The local authorities let it get out of the bag in Wuhan, and central leadership did not learn of the seriousness of the matter until late in the day. Local officials were flat out afraid to tell the folks in Beijing what they knew, when they knew it.
Once told, the Party kept insisting that person-to-person contamination was not possible, until the insistence became completely untenable. It also lied about the extent of the problem to protect itself, and that lying projected a distorted picture to others, including the WHO, of what they would soon be needing to manage. Xi Jinping inadvertently revealed recently that he knew of the problem two weeks before he spoke about it publicly, and it’s now clear that had Chinese authorities acted just two weeks sooner, and not let more than five million people out of Wuhan to travel for Lunar New Year celebrations, roughly 95 percent of what is happening now in the world would probably not be happening.
More specifically, the doctor who tried to warn the local Wuhan authorities, Li Wenliang, was muzzled and in short order ended up dead, most likely from the disease. However, he knew who was responsible for the initial screw-ups, and that may have sealed his fate. A prominent real estate tycoon and Party member who criticized Xi Jinping’s initial response, Ren Zhiqiang, disappeared only to see his name resurface as someone in a whole lot of trouble. The authorities have him, but where and whether dead or alive we don’t know. We may never learn the whole truth about what has happened to these people.
On the other hand, as the world’s most ambitious surveillance state, information control is at least useful in squelching rumor, panic, and conspiracy theories as well as truth. And as the world’s most determined police state, authorities were able to impose a draconian lockdown in Hubei Province once they determined to do so. They flattened the curve, and now are worried about a second wave of illness being imported from abroad. If that becomes a problem, we won’t know it in any detail in a timely manner, if ever, because the government in Beijing will doubtless dissemble about that as it did about the initial outbreak. In any event, Chinese authorities have not for a moment ceased engaging in a massive disinformation campaign and from propagandizing their achievements via public relations stunts like offering aid to Italy. Happily, most of these clumsy antics have backfired.
In the face of such cynical manipulation, it’s galling to hear WHO officials praise China’s recovery from the abyss without mentioning its government’s responsibility for the problem in the first place. But support for dissociating the United States from the WHO and defunding it into the future really needs to pause to ask the question: How did Chinese government influence over the WHO rise so high? What have Western governments in recent years done, or failed to do, to allow its suborning in the first place?
How will all this balance out in China? Is Chinese society now more trustful of its government for having flattened the infection curve, or less trustful because of the manifest fumbling in the early going—which the CCP in Beijing has tried to blame entirely on local officials—and because a hastily constructed hospital has ignominiously collapsed? Too soon to say.
Will typical Chinese now trust their controlled media more? Unlikely. In China, the lack of independent media doubles back to undermine trust in official media, as well it should. It could well expand to implicate trust in government, too. The “if only the leaders in Beijing knew” plaint might finally begin to wear thin among a politically significant percentage of the population. It’s long overdue, and a recent incident in Wuhan suggests that it might finally be arriving. Residents yelled “it’s all fake” from their high-rise apartment building windows as a media-covered “show” inspection was going on at street level, so that invited observers would see through the masquerade. The scene got widely reported, and so far CCP authorities have not tried to whitewash it, perhaps for fear of the reaction becoming more problematic than the event itself.
American commercial electronic media culture, meanwhile, is sorely afflicted by a business model that rewards sensationalism and clickbait, images and infotainment, over facts and analysis. The electronic media, commercial and social both, have thus become a polarization deepener and an irrationality accelerator par excellance. As a result, no sane educated adult in the United States these days trusts the commercial electronic media to provide reliable and comprehensive news about anything.
The American media cacophony functions in a pandemic to make it hard for accurate expert information to overcome the low signal-to-noise ratio produced by the current media environment. The fact that the fawning of all the major U.S. commercial media outlets on the President still goes on without respite, which only amplifies the scope of his disinformation while it adds to his celebrity optic, is beyond appalling. The media helped elect Trump in the first place, showering him with free exposure, and now it is magnifying the damage he is able to do. It’s an open question whether the bevy of White House correspondents seen at the President’s daily briefings, supposedly the cream of their profession’s crop, are simply celebrity-addled lackeys seeking market share for their bosses and for themselves, or whether they are actually as vapid and vainglorious as they appear. In any event, neither side of this sad spectacle, the White House side or the media side, cares foremostly about providing information and guidance; both are engaged in performative acts with dueling political axes to grind, and it makes for a chillingly ugly scene.
It doesn’t help, of course, that we have a President who assiduously uses new information technology to disintermediate the filters of professional journalism by tweeting directly to his constituency, and who has no qualms about inventing politically useful lies and spreading them near and far whenever he thinks it suits his purposes, which is lately daily.
Trump’s April 7 campaign event masquerading as one in a series of daily COVID-19 response briefings, this one the first without government medical experts with him on stage, struck a new low: Every sentence was a lie, an evasion, a blame projectile, a falsification of the record, or some other kind of misdirection. Even Trump’s pauses were mendacious. When some Republicans groused about the ensuing daily doses, Trump quipped that the ratings for the “shows” remained high. He understands, as his party critics do not, the spectacalization of American politics that his reality-TV presidency relies on.
Trump knows that it doesn’t matter if he tells the truth, or contradicts himself within mere days—for example, first claiming that the Federal government has no responsibility for dealing with the crisis and then claiming that his power of decision with regard to it is “total.” All that matters is that he is the headline, not Joe Biden; that the cameras are focused on him for maximum screen time; and that viewers—more a captive audience in lockdown even than they usually are—are mesmerized by outrage if not adulation. In our screen-addled society, dots rarely connect and inferences don’t happen in present-oriented cognitive confines. Just as in reality-TV series, episodes don’t connect. It’s not just that so few care; the growing legions of screen-addicted Americans rarely even notice anymore.
This is not amusing, as Neil Postman predicted it would not be 35 years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Anyone who believes that the President’s headlong instrumentalization of truth for political purposes will not influence what millions of Americans think and do amid the pandemic is bound to be disappointed. Significant violence cannot be ruled out. The pace of new gun purchases in the United States over the past eight weeks is genuinely alarming. Each one of these guns is a potential fuse, and every blame-laden sentence Donald Trump projects in his briefings is a potential lit match.
Singapore’s media culture is somewhere in between China’s and that of the United States. It is docile but not controlled, speckled with diverse opinion on some matters but certainly no free-for-all. Mark Twain once wrote that: “The American people enjoy three great blessings: free speech, a free press, and the good sense not to use either.” The third part of that statement is no longer true of Americans. The first two parts of that statement have never been strictly true in independent Singapore; but the third part now is, in the sense that nearly all professionals here, whether in government or not, are mindful not to give aid and quarter to panic or hysteria in edgy times. Thus, in Singapore, the media tend to amplify the government at times like these, but without giving ministers a free pass. If and when officials screw up, the attentive public will know about it.
We have, then, a classical Goldilocks situation: China’s media culture is too cold, America’s is too hot; but Singapore’s, at least in this particular situation, is just right, or very close to it.
Finally the personal quality of high political leadership. In a situation like the coronavirus pandemic, we need leaders who can communicate resolve, verve, and calm; who can show that the government is working in unison for the public good; and who evince a balance of hopefulness and humility. How have the three main leadership cadres done so far?
Xi Jinping does convey resolve, and calm. He’s a pretty good liar, too. But he lacks warmth. He’s no Deng Xiaoping, for sure.
Donald Trump cannot keep the facts straight, even when reading a text. He contradicts his own experts in favor of hunches. He shifts course erratically, thus undermining the seriousness and credibility of anything he subsequently says. He clearly has been more interested in calming markets for his own political benefit than he is in calming the nation or saving lives. His insistence on “opening up” the country too soon is manifestly a calculation of how many people he can get killed and still not be punished for it in November if the relevant economic indicators are headed in the right direction. Since the nation’s sake isn’t his motive, his misdirections are not sources of social calm but rather feed the suspicion harbored by a great many Americans that their Federal government cannot do anything right these days. He’s no Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
And Singapore? The National Development minister in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, 47-year old Lawrence Wong, has been nearly flawless. As already noted, the government was perhaps a bit slow on the draw in locking down dormitories for foreign laborers, but that was another in a series of judgment calls for which sufficient data was elusive. Wong has taken the bulk of attention and questions so that the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has been able to stay mainly behind the curtain where he should be. Leadership capital is so precious in a crisis like this that it should never be squandered from overuse. When the Prime Minister has spoken to the nation, also on the evening of March 12 and again on the evenings of March 28, April 10, and April 21, he has been brief, direct, clear, calm, honest, and reassuring.
Now, Prime Minister Lee has an advantage and a disadvantage in this, and it’s the same thing: He is the son of the late Lee Kuan Yew. On the one hand, people tend to assume, especially if they are Chinese, that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: If the father knew how to be a leader, so will the son. On the other hand, such is the outsized reputation of the father among most (not all) Singaporeans that not even the sudden reappearance of Buddha, Vishnu, or Jesus could dethrone him.
That said, having a hard act to follow or no, the Prime Minister has come across well. As an American in Singapore this year, the comparison between Trump and Lee leaves me with a feeling of cloying dismay. I can only imagine what my FSO friends over at Embassy Singapore or Napier Road go through every day.
Regime Type, Political Culture, and Happenstance
What does it all come down to? Simply that autocratic governments can be effective and not, just as democratic governments can be effective and not in a public health crisis. More important, perhaps, we use the terms authoritarian/autocratic and democratic as if they really mean anything anymore. Their utility was questionable even during late Cold War days, when it was obvious that huge and meaningful differences existed within these categories. Now that the international environment’s center of gravity has become increasingly de-Westernized, these terms are really showing their lack of conceptual coherence.
We are left with the recognition that path dependencies defined by the wells of historical experience incline particular countries toward certain regime types. But the diversity of political cultures even within regime-type categories is still so great that no causal straightjacket crisply binds together performance outcomes. It’s just a fact that some societies are more rule-abiding by dint of their historical conditioning than others. It’s just a fact, too, that some societies have deeper rule-of-law liberal bases than others. That is why deep-rooted democratic societies can put in place temporary emergency control measures to deal with a crisis and not forget that they are temporary. More shallow-rooted ones, like the post-Cold War nationalist regimes in Hungary and Poland, for example, may not see that distinction, or may want to lose sight of it, the better to use a crisis for purposes of grabbing more power, just as non-democratic regimes tend to do. These difference do not track with an authoritarian-democratic divide. Their true sources are more likely to be shapers of that divide, such as it is.
Evidence is abundant. As for “hard” authoritarian regimes, the Soviet Union was no less so before than China is today, but it handled Chernobyl very poorly indeed, not just initially but throughout that crisis. One has only to look at how the authoritarian government in Iran has handled the COVID-19 challenge to get the point that authoritarianism in and of itself does not predict effective policy.
There is similar variation among more or less liberal democracies. Israel’s democratic political culture has done a good job so far; its small size, high levels of social trust (at least among Israel’s Jewish citizens), and its social discipline and stoicism, courtesy of a near permanent sense of low-level siege, probably account for this. Early projections of perhaps 10,000 deaths now stand at less than 1,000, and may end up being less than half that.
Italy and Spain have done much less well, but these are larger and less security-conscious societies. Germany and France have done a bit better, and so far the German mortality rate is atypically low—but that may be more for testing/data-related reasons rather than anything else.
No country in Europe, however, has responded as successfully as have several East Asian countries: Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. But then East Asians learned from the 2003 SARS experience, which never struck Europe or the United States (but did affect Canada), and from other serious public health challenges along the way as well (Zika, MERS, Dengue, and others). So their governments and publics alike were more experienced and both better invested and prepared. (Some sub-Saharan African countries may similarly benefit from having dealt with Ebola in recent memory.) That experience has also significantly augmented their social trust quotient in the COVID-19 crisis as well as their competence scores.
That experience and learning on the part of government administrations count for a lot may be seen from the fact that trust in government in Hong Kong is for obvious reasons much lower than in the other four East Asian cases. Yet Hong Kong’s record is comparable or better, nonetheless.
The argument that there is something intrinsic about East Asian political cultures that makes them more effective in a health crisis is not altogether foolish. Looked at in broad general terms, it seems that the quality of governance in East Asia during the COVID-19 crisis has been superior to the quality of governance in most of the West. Again, that may have much to do with their recent experience coping with epidemic disease, but it may also have to do with the fact that East Asian countries are still consolidating as modern states and rising economically, but without having yet lost grit and discipline. Western countries, contrarily, may be on the other side of the development mountain, wealthy but also more decadent, flabbier, lazier, more interested in being entertained than in being still richer.
Additionally, East Asian cultures remain more amenable to hierarchical social arrangements, meaning that a certain natural respect for authority can be taken for granted in a crisis. In the West, the far advance of an undifferentiated egalitarian ethos has strained the power of authority in all provinces of the culture, including the political.
In any event, cultural and developmentalist explanations make far better sense than regime-type explanations, for, obviously, some of East Asia’s success stories in the COVID-19 response frame are democracies and some are not, and some like Singapore and Hong Kong are kind of stuck in between.
But even if the cultural-developmentalist approach is intriguing for what parts of the puzzle set it might explain, it cannot stand alone as sufficient explanation. Why? Because while Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan have done reasonably well, they have not done so in the same way. Here Japan is the outlier.
The Japanese approach has relied on a deep cultural tradition of default social distancing and, more interesting but having nothing to do with political culture as such, on having more systematically inoculated its elderly against pneumonia. This is a combined leadership/competence factor at work. Japan’s approach has seemed wise, but Japan has also done much less testing than South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, partly in order to assure social calm and keep the economy from melting down. So its numbers may read artificially low. If the country’s death rate per capita among its elderly is really as low as its data claims, that is owed to the inoculation program and the high quality of its hospital system. Time will tell if things remain under control. As of this writing (April 23), things are not looking so rosy in and around Tokyo.
The same difference appears in the kindred political culture zone of Scandinavia, where Sweden’s approach looks more like Japan’s, relying on high levels of intrinsic social trust and common sense. Denmark’s, Norway’s, and Finland’s has been more “quarantine/lockdown” oriented, as in much of the rest of western Europe. As with Japan, time will tell if the Swedish leadership has chosen well. A factor reportedly at work in the thinking of the leadership team has been the calculation that a relatively low-mortality virus could be most effectively dealt with by the soon-as-possible acquisition of herd immunity. So far, not so bad, and time will tell if that strategy was a wise one. If there is a second and third wave of the virus, Sweden may be better off than its neighbors.
Note, too, that there is great diversity in East/Southeast Asia beyond the five cases just compared. Governments in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam have not done particularly well in dealing with the pandemic, but we don’t have reliable details because the generic executive function levels of these countries is too low to trust any data proffered. Note that of these countries some are properly described as electoral democracies, if sometimes barely, and some are not—and the difference seems to be completely irrelevant.
Even small size, while obviously important, is not wholly determinative. Qatar has an even smaller citizen population and a more controllable city-state environment than Singapore or Hong Kong, yet its public health response has been less effective despite having had more warning time. Singapore’s infection rate as of April 16 was 632 per million; Qatar’s is 1,288 per million, more than double.
The conclusion is clear: No matter which sets of countries one chooses to compare, no significant patterns stuck in ideological concrete exist; other factors mainly shape the outcomes.
Same goes for the raw size of the U.S. Federal government. A bigger Federal state will not automatically yield better outcomes in future health crises, but a better balanced federal system that invests more in public health infrastructure at sub-federal levels very likely will. The United States was clearly no less democratic two or three generations ago than it still is today, and it handled public health crises fine in the past with an even smaller Federal government. So if competence varies over time even within the same regime, then regime type alone cannot possibly be determinative of outcomes. QED, folks.