Authoritarianism in times of pandemics

The COVID-19 coronavirus caught the world unprepared. No one expected a pandemic in 2020, and this is clear from the reactions of states and their leaders. Some, such as Brazil’s leader Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, waved dismissively and called the disease a hoax. On the 27th of March, it became clear that Johnson was ill with COVID-19, and Bolsonaro’s first test also came out positive, just 5 days after his meeting with Donald Trump. The second, according to the Facebook profile of Bolsonaro, was already negative. Time will tell if his illness was a momentary sensation, a Brazilian media speculation, or a fact. Other states such as Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan have taken action on time. This comes as no surprise as they have already survived coronavirus twice, albeit with another strain, in 2003 and in 2009. China has also experienced these two previous waves, but Beijing has nonetheless been taken by surprise this time.

“Count your chickens after they are hatched”

Reports of the damage scale caused by the coronavirus face several problems. First, there is no way to calculate exactly how many people are infected with the virus. This is due to the inability to test everyone, coupled with the high rate of spread of the disease. Secondly, an equally serious problem is information blackout. Here, authoritarian states, of course, occupy the forefront. Due to strict and sometimes absolute control over the media flow, it is extremely difficult to obtain adequate and credible information in the event of a crisis in these countries.

When the coronavirus began to spread to China in November-December 2019, local authorities initially tried to suppress and downplay the extent of the problem. The first evidence of the infection indicated a small scale of the disease. Then came videos and comments, filmed and distributed by locals, who painted a very different and ominous picture. Many experts and observers have expressed serious doubts about the accuracy of the data released by China. A chilling example was the sudden announcement of 15,000 new cases in February 2020.

Official statistics in China according to John Hopkins University.


The recalculation of 15,000 infected is clearly visible in the middle of the chart, dated from the 12th of February. The sudden stabilization of patient growth at the end of February was called into question, as was current information on the death toll. According to official statistics, a total of 3,174 people have died in Hubei Province. At the same time, an inspection at the funeral home showed more than 7,000 urns used in crematoriums around and in Wuhan, which was considered the outbreak of the virus. Additional weight in measurement is placed on the scale of mobile network usage in China. For the last quarter, the number of mobile network users decreased by 21,000,000 and that of landline users – by 840,000. Of course, much of this decline is due to the collapse of businesses, the closure of stores and the decrease in the number of seasonal workers who generally use two mobile networks when traveling to other provinces. However, if even 1% of those 840,000 subscribers who cut their mobile networks fell victim to COVID-19, then again it is 8,400 people – 2.5 times the official statistics and relatively closer to the stated number of 7,000 urns set aside for crematoriums in Wuhan province.

The way in which the coronavirus is spread in Europe and the US is also being raised. In territories similar in size to China, several major outbreaks of the disease are observed. At the same time, the disease in China is mostly concentrated in Hubei Province. The official point is that the Chinese authorities have been able to quickly introduce quarantine measures to block the spread of the infection. However, this is not true. The infection was announced by Chinese doctors in December 2019, and the first significant measures taken by the authorities came in 2020, with Wuhan being put under quarantine on the 23rd of January 2020. Prior to the quarantine announcement, over 5,000,000 people left Wuhan. There is also a discrepancy at the statistical level. According to the basic charts, China is starting to move away from the dangerous line of doubling cases around the 6th of February. In reality, however, the peak of 15,000 new patients announced in a single day comes a week later. Even if we assume that this is a simple correction of the data, it is more than clear that statistics submitted before the 13th of February are incorrect. This raises serious doubts about the stabilization of the number of newly infected at the end of the month and the reduction of real cases in March. It is important to note here – the remarks made so far do not mean that the People’s Republic of China has no longer been able to cope with the main phase of the disease. The question, however, is what the real cost to this victory is.

Of course, China is not the only authoritarian country hiding real data on the spread of the infection. On the 28th of February 2020, according to official statistics in Iran, 34 people were killed by COVID-19. A BBC investigation has revealed that the real number is at least 210 people. The major difference in numbers, approximately 6 times bigger than the announced, casts serious doubts on the current official figure (as of the end of March) – 2,378 deaths. This is evidenced by the fact that massive burial pits appeared in Qom province, the initial spreading point, visible from satellite images.

Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies.


The crisis with the coronavirus has spread to such an extent that the otherwise outspoken and always arrogant Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, asked for urgent international assistance on the 12th of March when official deaths in the country were 429.

In North Korea, authorities said there were no patients, as all borders were quickly closed. Informally, however, Pyongyang has sought help to cope with the spread of the disease, although it continues to deny publicly the spread of COVID-19 in the country. According to sources in the DPRK, South Korean media reported that there were at least 180 coronavirus deaths in North Korea and 3,700 were quarantined. The data only applies to the North Korean army.

In Syria, it was not until the 23rd of March that the Damascus government announced the first case of a coronavirus. However, he first reports of dead soldiers from pro-Iranian militias with COVID-19 had emerged at least a week earlier. Even before Damascus announced its first official case, Syrian Democratic Forces controlling the territories northeast of the Euphrates river had declared that they were closing the roads across the river with territories controlled by the regime’s forces.

The situation played out in a similar way in Russia. Authorities began reporting on the very limited spread of the disease and а minimal number of casualties. Again, the intervention of doctors who chose to speak up despite the censorship cast serious doubts on the real situation in the country.

Anastasia Vasileva, President of the Medical Association, one of the doctors syndicates in Russia.

Doctors have announced that patients who died as a result of symptoms inherent for the coronavirus are being declared as victims of pneumonia in order to mask the real extent of the crisis. This could be further explained by the drastic measures taken by Moscow over the last few days in closing the borders and completely canceling flights to and from Russia. These urgent measures, in fact, open a window to one of the biggest problems of authoritarian states – information security.

Ignorance is bliss

Authoritarian states live based on a simple principle – society needs to know the bare minimum. With little knowledge comes little anxiety and public anxiety is the main enemy of authoritarianism. The reason is that worried people ask too many questions and can act unpredictably. Authoritarian systems do not like questions and unforeseen situations because their very nature is closely tied to total control. This creates the need to over-centralized everything – power, news and, in general, information.

Information control, in turn, poses two major problems. The first one is the need to prevent any possible data leakage, which consumes massive resources. The second problem is purely structural – lower-level employees are afraid to share on information about unforeseen, unpleasant things upwards in the hierarchy to prevent falling a scapegoat in turn. This creates a kind of internal eclipse of information. It turns out that not only the population but also the upper echelons of power are not aware of absolutely everything that is happening in the state. As Russian domestic policy expert Mark Galeotti rightly admits, it is very possible that until recently, no one has told Putin exactly how many ill patients there are in his state, and only after learning of it, that all these extraordinary measures have been taken from last week – the cancellation of flights, annual leave for everyone, postponing the plebiscite for a constitutional amendment, etc.

A similar scenario may have developed in China. The Wuhan local administration has been slow to convey bad news to the governors of Hubei Province, who in turn did not want to immediately bother Xi Jinping, a man popular with many things but not with a good temper or tolerance for failure. Fear, which is the main weapon of authoritarian regimes, is one of their greatest weaknesses. The reason is that what separates the anointed nomenclature from the ordinary citizen, who may suddenly disappear, is a single inappropriate mistake. The lack of real security – not only job security but also that of individual life acts as a paralyzing factor for the system in times of crisis. Similar to the 1986 Chernobyl situation, each level tries, usually inadequately, to suppress the crisis before finally surrendering and sharing with those up the chain. The problem is that each subsequent step requires more time, as more power means more effort to cover up the crisis. In a pandemic situation, any delay is fatal, not in a matter of weeks, but days. As aforementioned, China has been delaying the crisis for more than a month.
Do not waste the crisis

In a 1976 article at the Medical Economics Journal, M.H. Weiner writes, „Do not waste a crisis – neither your patients’ one nor your own.“ Gradually, the phrase „Do not waste a crisis“ becomes a principle of economy and diplomacy. It has obviously already become part of politics, too.
In addition to the tremendous stress on states, crises also create many opportunities. Opportunities for reform, but also opportunities for concentrating even more power in the hands of the ruling elites. In the last 10 years, Europe has seen many authoritarian wannabes. We have some at home, many around us, both within and outside the European Union. The current crisis, with its state of emergency and extended powers, creates a fertile ground for the authoritarianism of democratic systems. Hungary becomes a textbook example, but based on the emergency measures adopted, Bulgaria is following the same model. This situation requires an extremely high level of public sensitivity. In our country, it is unfortunately dulled by the low educational level, lack of cultural qualifications and lack of clear political trends that would channel civic ideas on how a state should be governed. Adding to the massive groundless nostalgia for a fictitious past imagined in people’s minds, but non-existent in reality, the recipe for disaster is clear.

While some state leaders try walking in the shoes of authoritarian statesmen, the latter do not stand with hands in their pockets. In an attempt to divert attention from the enormous domestic problems, Russia and China rushed to send humanitarian aid to First World countries, most notably Italy, where the coronavirus disaster gained apocalyptic proportions. It is extremely convenient for China to be the humanitarian winner in a country whose indicators of COVID-19 development are perhaps most clearly indicative of the real dimensions of the crisis that Beijing faced. Russia rushed to follow in the footsteps of its eastern neighbor. However, it turned out that, like other moves by Putin, humanitarian aid to Italy was limited investment in the pursuit of unlimited dividends. About 80% of the assistance sent by the Kremlin proved to be useless. The same level of inefficiency was reported by China’s quick coronavirus tests – in Spain and the Czech Republic – authorities said the tests were massively ineffective due to their lack of sensitivity to the disease.

However, online propaganda has been rampant, portraying Russia and China as Italy’s saviors, as well as ridiculous rumors of Italy leaving the „ungrateful“ EU.

Снимка на De Re Militari.

Leaving aside the usual nonsense for Nostradamus and Vanga (who is much more popular in Russia than in Bulgaria – for example, the verb „vanguvam“ [вангувам ]), Prigozhin’s troll factory is working at full force, and we also add the informal support network for the Chinese image, which is far less discussed.

What did the author mean

Long story short, the global pandemic crisis creates both enormous challenges and significant niches to grow in terms of authoritarian regimes and those pseudo-democrats who want to play in the high league with the Big Brothers (an Orwell reference). The situation in the world right now requires all societies to be vigilant. We need to be careful about the statistics that flood us. We must beware of the news we read – between 40% and 60% of them are fake or distorted. We need to be extremely vigilant about the laws that governments are passing while we are sitting at home focused on the newer and newer restrictive measures issued by the National Crisis Group. The media flow and political efforts are creating an eclipse. The eclipse builds up and turns into darkness. And in the darkness, as Bob Woodward put it, democracy is dying.

Original article in Bulgarian by Alexander Stoyanov, translated by Mia Babikyan.

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