The politics of pandemics: Why some countries respond better than others

The capacity of a state and the degree of economic inequality among its residents will determine how successful it is in coping effectively with a pandemic like COVID-19. Whether it is a democracy or a dictatorship matters relatively less, according to recent research by Wharton management professor Mauro Guillén

Sign mounted at a playground that reads “In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this facility is closed (cerrado) to the public until further notice.”

Titled, “The Politics of Pandemics: Democracy, State Capacity, and Economic Inequality,” Guillén’s working paper tracks epidemic outbreaks in 146 countries since 1995. It is the first study to explore the effects of democracy, state capacity, and income inequality on epidemic dynamics.

“In democracies, greater transparency, accountability, and public trust reduce the frequency and lethality of epidemics, shorten response time, and enhance people’s compliance with public health measures,” Guillén writes in his paper. However, “democracy has no effects on the likelihood and lethality of epidemics.”

According to the paper, inequality increases the frequency and scale of an epidemic, and it undermines people’s compliance with epidemic containment policies such as social distancing and sheltering in place because people at the low end of the socioeconomic scale cannot afford to stay at home—they must go to work. But strong state and government structures could help offset most of the shortcomings. “State capacity is a bulwark against the occurrence and ill effects of crises and emergencies, while economic inequality exacerbates them,” Guillén writes.

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