Coronavirus and Autocracy: An Extremely Dangerous Mix

Footage of a North Korean missile test appearing on a news program in South Korea earlier this year. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

In movies and literature, it’s often a threat from outside — aliens, despots, T. rex — that makes us recognize our common humanity and band together to fight a common enemy.

In the realm of international relations, unfortunately, it’s pretty much the opposite. While global bodies like the World Health Organization push humans to get over ourselves and work together when a threat like coronavirus comes along, habits of fear and competition steer us the other way. And when violent, authoritarian, insecure leaders come into the picture, the problem gets that much worse.

So strap in.

In the last week, North Korea has denied that it has any cases of the virus, despite being sandwiched between two countries — China and South Korea — with the world’s largest outbreaks. Former CIA Korea-watcher Sue Mi Terry says that North Korea is “uniquely unprepared” and “arguably more vulnerable than any other country in the world.” What the North is prepared to do is shut itself off — its measures to isolate foreign diplomats are so onerous that a number of countries that keep embassies there have chosen to shutter them and send their staff home. That also means no U.S. allies left to carry direct messages to the country’s leaders.

This comes at an inauspicious time. Despite the coronavirus-prompted cancellation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises — something the North badly wants — Pyongyang also chose the past week to up the tension by test-firing its first projectiles of 2020 — then including a second round early Monday morning. When South Korea’s government complained last week, the North fired off a salvo of snarky commentary, only to turn around days later and wish the South all the best in its fight against COVID-19. U.S. talks with the North have largely broken down. The U.S. envoy for the talks, Steve Biegun, was named the State Department’s number two and is also busy trying to keep that building functioning. Some policy experts suggested that the missiles were intended to recapture Washington’s attention and provoke a return to dialogue and new concessions. But it seems at least as likely to provoke rage and stronger responses in the region.

Business as usual, you might think. But it isn’t just North Korea. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are back on the agenda as well, with the International Atomic Energy Agency announcing last week that Tehran is blocking it from accessing some sites it had previously been allowed to inspect. And, in case you wondered how effective the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign has been, we have the numbers: Iran’s stock of enriched uranium has tripled since November. Nice work, everybody.

This drama unfolds as the Iranian government begs the world for relaxed sanctions and health assistance with its raging coronavirus epidemic, which is among the world’s worst, and whose fatalities have already included a senior government official and a member of Parliament.

So world peace, or even better, cooperation, are not going to be among the coronavirus’s side effects. But are autocracies actually better at fighting coronavirus on their home turf than democracies? Dictatorships have some characteristics that might seem advantageous in combating infectious disease: No one objects when they track your every move, and if they tell you to stay home, you have very little choice not to.

These are governments whose rulers don’t trust their citizens, however, and they tend to have citizens who don’t trust their rulers. That makes leaders feel more vulnerable, and more tempted to seek showy tools of force to protect them — nuclear weapons being pretty much the ultimate security blanket. But when mistrust of leadership and institutions rules, people are less likely to do what the autocrat says, and more likely to resort to violence and vigilantism to protect themselves.

Take China, which was able to cut off entire cities and close schools and workplaces for weeks on end, something the most power-hungry U.S. public-health professionals couldn’t dream of. Time will tell how that strategy compares to others around the globe — but we know so far that Chinese citizens didn’t trust government information sources, and panic set in. This led to supplies running out, hospitals being overwhelmed, and unnecessary infections and deaths. China watchers also allege that Beijing knew about the novel coronavirus for weeks before it implemented any measures, but was paralyzed both by lower officials’ fears of sharing bad news and more senior officials’ ability to ignore a brewing crisis. Compare that to South Korea, also hard hit, but where massive, free, voluntary testing seems to be keeping death rates lower and the public calm.

We haven’t seen coronavirus-related violence yet (although Asian-Americans’ worries about being targeted are off the charts). But during the Ebola crisis in Africa, health-care workers and peacemakers alike struggled with violence against medical professionals and refusals to call cease-fires to allow vaccination and treatment. Karin Landgren, who served as special representative of the secretary general and head of the U.N. Mission in Liberia during the crisis, has spoken about how conflict, social divisions, and authoritarian rule shrink “trust circles,” so that local communities simply stop hearing or believing government advice. Even during an epidemic as threatening as Ebola, she says, the greatest risk is not the disease, but the breakdown in public order.

Should we worry about that happening in the U.S.? Maybe. Just over 100 years ago, U.S. leaders understated the seriousness of influenza out of concern that panic would undermine the war effort. World War I ground on, and the disease claimed countless lives that might have been saved if government had trusted the public and told the whole truth.

Today, the United States has an image-obsessed leader, divided citizens who often don’t trust each other or the institutions meant to protect and inform them, and a growing epidemic that appears to have been exacerbated by the government’s incompetence and desire to downplay, or distract from, the threat. At the same time, two wannabe nuclear autocracies are courting conflict amid their own domestic crises. Americans need to make sure the U.S. doesn’t follow their lead.

Coronavirus and Autocracy: An Extremely Dangerous Mix