‘How coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings in the former Soviet Union’, says a headline in this week’s New Statesman, followed by the subheading ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’. That pretty much tells you the message that author Felix Light wants you to take on board – when it comes to dealing with the COVID crisis: ‘democracy good, authoritarianism bad’. It sounds nice. I’m a democrat. So are most of you, I imagine. We’d like to think that democracy works better than the alternative. But is it true?
‘In the former Soviet Union … if dictatorship is fumbling the coronavirus test, then democracy is passing with flying colours’, writes Light, contrasting the low infection and death rates in the ‘democratic’ Baltic states and Georgia with the higher rates in ‘dictatorial’ Russia, Belarus, and Central Asia (Ukraine doesn’t get a mention – perhaps Light can’t work out where to put it on the democracy-authoritarian spectrum, or perhaps it fails to fit his model). The reason, he says, is that ‘post-Soviet authoritarianism tends to mask relatively weak states. Even without a deadly viral pandemic, these regimes often find it difficult to perform bread-and-butter functions.’
There’s some truth to this, in that state capacity in many former Soviet states is relatively weak compared to, say, Western Europe or North America. But state capacity and democracy are not directly correlated. China has quite substantial state capacity, but isn’t democratic. Ukraine is considered more democratic than many other post-Soviet states but has perhaps the weakest state capacity of them all. Moreover, capacity is one thing; having the will to use it is another. When it comes to COVID-19, China has shown that it has both capacity and will; the United States, by contrast, has the capacity, but has shown relatively little will. Overall, looking at the data on which states have fared well and which states have fared badly during the COVID crisis, it’s very hard to see any correlation between success or failure on the one hand and state capacity on the other.
So let’s look at those statistics. Comparing them is difficult because some states do a lot more coronavirus tests than others, and so their higher infection rates may simply be a reflection of detecting a lot more asymptomatic cases. Also problematic is the fact that different countries use different criteria to classify the cause of death, with some putting the cause down as coronavirus if there’s even a suspicion that it might be, and others saying that it’s not an official coronavirus death if the deceased had the virus but actually died of something else. This produces wide differences in death rates from country to country. In the case of Russia, there are suspicions that the official death rate underestimates reality, perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3. There is some evidence to support this claim, based on the number of ‘excess deaths’ this year as opposed to last. However, this is hardly unique to Russia. According to the BBC today, the number of excess deaths in the past few weeks in the UK is around 50,000, whereas the official COVID death toll is about 28,000, suggesting that the official toll underestimates reality by a factor of 2. Given all these problems, the best we can do is accept that official statistics are questionable, but also recognize that the same errors arise across the board, and so take the data as a more or less accurate representation of comparative levels of infection and death.
And so what does the data tell us (focusing on death rates, as ultimately that’s what really matters)? Latvia has experienced just 19 coronavirus deaths, Estonia 61, and Lithuania 54. These seem like tiny numbers, but the population of these countries is very small too (Estonia being just 1.3 million). The death rates per million of population in these three countries are 8.3, 46.9, and 19.3 respectively, indicating quite a variation between them (Latvia doing quite well, but Estonia not so much).
Russia, meanwhile, has officially declared 2,305 coronavirus deaths, which equates to 16.5 per million inhabitants, a higher rate than Latvia, but much lower than Estonia, and a little lower than Lithuania. Belarus has declared 151 deaths, a rate of 15.9 per million – very similar to Russia, so again lower than Estonia and Lithuania. In Ukraine, there are 456 deaths, a rate of 10.1 per million. Kazakhstan claims only to have suffered 32 deaths, giving it a remarkably low rate of 1.74 per million. Uzbekistan says only 11 Uzbeks have died from coronavirus, despite a population of nearly 33 million, a death rate of 0.33 per million. And so on.
You can, of course, take the Central Asian results with a pinch of salt, if you want, but even if they are a substantial underestimate, there’s no evidence to suggest that the death rate there is any worse than in the Baltic States. Likewise, if you accept the claim that Russia’s official statistics underestimate reality by an order of 2-3, and simultaneously believe that the Baltic figures are 100% correct, then Russia’s true death rate ends up being pretty much identical to that of Estonia. And if on top of all that, you accept the classification of the Baltic States as ‘democracies’ and the other post-Soviet states as ‘authoritarian’, then Light’s claim that democracy is coping with the virus crisis better than authoritarianism simply isn’t borne out by the data.
And this isn’t the case only in the post-Soviet space. Let’s say that the Russian and Belarussian statistics underestimate reality by 200%, so that there are actually about 6,000 coronavirus deaths in Russia, and let’s also say (which, as we’ve seen, we probably shouldn’t) that official statistics in Western democratic states don’t underestimate at all. That would give Russia and Belarus a death rate of around 50 per million, while giving Western states the following rates: United States – 258; United Kingdom – 495; Canada – 141; Spain – 580; Italy – 499; France – 403; Belgium – 777; Germany (considered a European success story) – 94; and so on. The picture is pretty clear: while the situation is far from universally rosy and there are certainly no grounds for complacency, compared with the democratic ‘West’, all states in the former Soviet Union have fared reasonably well. Why that is the case is an open question, but regime type appears to have nothing to do with it.
The COVID pandemic, says Felix Light, has ‘underlined democracy’s public health advantages’, and ‘has simply incentivised governments to make sound pandemic policy decisions’. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put aside the somewhat unsophisticated division of states into categories of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’, and similarly for simplicity’s sake let’s accept Light’s formula for which states fit into which box (the West, the Baltics & the Georgia – democratic; the rest – authoritarian). Is it true, as Light claims, that ‘coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings’ and that ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’? As I said, it’s a nice story, and the democrat in me would love to believe it. But, unfortunately for Mr Light, the stats say otherwise. It’s just another case of wishful democratic thinking.