Autocracy is Hazardous to Your Health

At this point in time, the coronavirus pandemic threatens the health of individuals and economies around the globe.  

Such viruses can mutate and jump from animals to people who are in close contact.[1] This was the case with the 1918 bird flu pandemic that killed about 50 million people worldwide, including my grandfather, and the Ebola virus that broke out in the last quarter of the twentieth century.[2] 

Such epidemics only can be treated successfully by the efforts of governments working together under the guidance of their scientific communities. When public health decisions become political by trying to make politicians look good rather than admitting the difficulties involved and bringing all possible resources to bear, the results can be disastrous. Such was the case with the response of the American government to Hurricane Katrina that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.[3]

In the case of world-threatening epidemics, governments must be able to quickly assess the situation, then act.[4] Hiding the truth of the severity of the situation interferes with adequate planning and invariably makes it worse.

The severity of the initial outbreak in China was hidden — at first from the Chinese people and then from the world — according to world health experts.[5] Hiding the truth in non-democratic countries about a situation that might embarrass the government is routine, but this makes it much more difficult to plan and take action. If the coronavirus had been confirmed earlier, cautionary measures such as quarantines and travel restrictions could have been put in place, and perhaps a vaccine process started, saving many lives. In Iran, the Deputy Health Minister was instructed to participate in a news conference assuring people that the virus is under control while sweating and sick from the disease himself while on television. 

Countries need an infrastructure and expertise to manage mass health emergencies and must have spokespersons who can provide the public with accurate information about what to expect. As the coronavirus spread elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, many countries announced plans for serious precautionary measures to limit its effects. South Korea tested hundreds of thousands. However, because of limited staffing at the US Center for Disease Control and a revolving door at the US Office of Homeland Security, there was little competence at the top to comfort the public and provide accurate information.[6] The US president contradicted his own experts about the likely spread of the disease and the time that would be required to develop a vaccine.[7]

No matter how advanced our medical techniques become to prevent disease and cure our ailments, there will always be new public health threats. This is why we must be continually alert to confront the next challenge that nature presents with all possible resources available.

When politicians hide the truth from people it endangers us all. In autocracies this is common, but in democracies we expect honesty from our leaders. To the extent that the truth is hidden, we move farther from democracy as our health and liberties both are imperiled.

Steve Zolno is the author of The Future of Democracy, The Death of Democracy, and the upcoming Truth and Democracy. He has been leading study groups in democracy since 2006.


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[1] See “The Animal Origins of Coronavirus and Flu.” Tara C Smith, Quanta Magazine. February 25, 2020.
[2] See “What is Ebola Virus Disease?” Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
[3] See “Report: Katrina response a 'failure of leadership,' ” February 14, 2006, CNN. “The report is the result of a Republican 11-member House select committee that investigated the response to Katrina at the local, state and federal levels.”
[4] See "The Government had a model for handling Ebola. Trump ditched it." John Harwood. CNN. February 26, 2020.
[5] See “Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?” Yi-Zheng Lian. New York Times. February 20, 2020.
[6] See: “Sen. Kennedy Grills DHS Chief Chad Wolf on Virus Mortality Rates." Neil Munro. Breitbart. February 26, 2020.
[7] See “Coronavirus Risk in the U.S. ‘Is Very Low,’ Trump Says.” Michael D. Shear and Katie Rogers. New York Times. February 26, 2020.



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