The propaganda battle is emanating from China, where the ruling regime appears determined to leverage the pandemic to defend and promote its system of government and raise its global standing when the crisis is over.
“The truth is,” Beijing’s Global Times asserted, the “US system is not nearly as efficient as the Chinese system.”
They also take the opportunity to disparage Western criticism of China’s horrifying human rights record.
So far, with the democratic West consumed with fighting Covid-19, Beijing has had the field mostly to itself, making strides with its fabricated narrative that China is simply on a different, higher level when it comes to epidemic control.
But are dictatorships by nature better at dealing with pandemics?
The answer is simply no. While it is true that autocracies have an easier time imposing draconian measures on large populations, it is also undeniable that open societies are better at preventing the emergence of pandemics.
Does that mean democracies are incapable of preventing pandemics? Of course not. It means democracies need to elect competent, trustworthy leaders.
As the contagion spreads, imposing restrictions on civil liberties creates wrenching dilemmas for open societies. That’s a dilemma that dictatorships don’t face.
Balancing the public good and individual liberties is a constant struggle for democratic societies. During a pandemic, the public good weighs much more heavily. Pandemics also demand a more active role for authorities, for the government. In autocracies, that only helps despots tighten their grip. In democracies, that creates friction, anxiety and push-back to protect freedom and democracy.
Democracies have the challenge of protecting their values while fighting the pandemic. They try to rely on a bottom-up approach to social restrictions, hoping that the public will respond because it understands the risk, not because sinister enforcers will give them no other choice.
That’s why public officials must explain the facts, plainly and clearly, without sugarcoating or sending mixed messages so that the public will trust them and heed the advice of experts. Otherwise, the system won’t work. Otherwise, restrictions will require coercion, as they do in dictatorships.
Autocrats would like the world to think that Covid-19 offers proof that theirs is the better system, the system of the future. They have a weak case, and it should be forcefully rebutted. Public health does not require tyranny.
To fight a pandemic effectively, democracies must act like democracies, with openness and truthfulness. After all, defeating the virus is a battle by the people, for the people.
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