Democracy is not to Blame: How Institutions Sink or Float a Country’s Covid-19 Response

Nicole Zehner, Editor

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States has stood out for its failure to contain the virus’ spread. Meanwhile, governments in places such as Vietnam and China (after its initial attempts to conceal the existence of the virus) have been noted for the ways in which they have stopped the spread of Covid-19 within their borders. Given that Vietnam and China are both authoritarian countries, and the United States, a democracy, the popular idea has arisen that authoritarian governments are better at adequately preventing the spread of the virus. However, this is false. It is the quality of the institutions that matter, not the type of government.

The reasoning that people use in defense of authoritarian governments is that they are not beholden to the rights of the people and they do not require nearly as much consultation. It is thought that democracy is simply not designed for creating a fast response to disaster. However, other countries have complicated this narrative. South Korea is a strong example of how a democracy can stop the spread of Covid-19. By comparing the United States and Korea, it becomes apparent that a country’s institutions—and not its form of governance—are fundamental to a strong Covid-19 response.

While the two countries’ outbreaks are different in character and circumstance, it is nevertheless clear that the two countries have contrasting levels of success in their responses. This is most striking when comparing their number of cases and deaths. The United States is currently at 15.9 million cases and 295,522 deaths, whereas Korea is currently at 41,736 cases and 578 deaths. [1] On deaths per 100,000 population, the United States has 89.29 deaths and Korea has 1.11 deaths. [2] The sheer differences in deaths and cases illustrate two different Covid-19 responses: one where the virus was never properly suppressed and one where it was. Both countries are democracies. The difference is in their institutions.   

Institutions in the United States are not in a good place for handling a pandemic. For a start, the country is facing hyper-partisanship, which caused a toxic discourse from the beginning. This partisanship is reinforced via a strongly entrenched two-party system, increasingly harsh rhetoric amongst politicians, and a primary election process that often encourages political extremism. While this partisanship has other roots (media becoming increasingly aggressive and partisan, for example), it is not unreasonable to look at American institutions and how they maintain and contribute to this partisanship.

The partisanship itself proved detrimental to the American Covid-19 response, as can be seen on the national level. Since the United States was unable to suppress the outbreak early, lockdowns and restrictions on businesses were necessary, which meant that Congressional stimulus packages were vital for stopping economic collapse. Yet after the first stimulus package was passed, Congress became completely dead-locked, even as protections were set to expire. [3] The failure to pass a second package shows that the policy-making process has deep fractures. Additionally, the politicization of everything from masks to schools reopening underscores the havoc unleashed by hyper-partisanship and the institutions that support it.   

Other institutional matters also contributed to the poor Covid-19 response. The United States had staff to address pandemics, but a few years before Covid-19 hit, key staff members left and were not replaced. [4] This shows that institutions were likely less prepared to take on the virus than they could have been. Also, cultural distrust of government was inflamed by the 2014 revelation that the NSA was spying on the public throughout the majority of the 21st century, which likely served to further sour the public on contact-tracing measures. An unprepared government and a distrustful public will hinder any pandemic response.

Hyper-partisanship appears to be less toxic in Korea, especially regarding the pandemic. On an institutional level, this is partly because Korea’s parties are not nearly as entrenched as in the United States. Though two parties dominate political life, they are not that old and are part of a “two-major-party-plus system.” [5] Also, in the not-so-distant past, parties were volatile and tended to form around political figures. [6] While regions tend to be different politically and sharp disagreements can occur over certain issues, overall, Korea is less divided than the United States, making it harder for the pandemic to become partisan. Consultation can be less divisive, a consensus can be reached faster, and real action can start sooner.

Other institutional factors are also at play for Korea. MERS hit Korea badly, causing the government to invest in more pandemic preparedness, meaning that Korean institutions had a better idea of how to handle Covid-19 off the bat. [7] Also, the public has more trust in the government regarding their personal data. Part of this is probably cultural (the United States is very individualistic in comparison), although Korean institutions also have not been involved in a data collection scandal akin to the one that occurred in the United States. This made it easier for Korea to institute a rigorous contact tracing system that helped to keep Korean Covid-19 numbers low without the need for a lockdown.

Some of the differences between the American and Korean pandemic responses have to do with factors outside of either countries’ control. The countries are different in size, geography, and culture. However, the drastic difference in per-capita deaths and government intervention shows that the Korean government has done a much better job at suppressing the virus. Given that both the United States and Korea are democracies, it is wrong to make overbroad statements about the difficulties democracy presents in a time of crisis. Democracies need not do a bad job in controlling a pandemic, as Korea illustrates. By comparing the US and Korea, it becomes clear that the key to a successful response is the institutions of the governments, and not their form of governance.

[1] “COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU).” ArcGIS Dashboards, Johns Hopkins, 12 Dec. 2020, 12:26,

[2] “Mortality Analyses.” Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Johns Hopkins, 2020,

[3] Cochrane, Emily. “Congress, Paralyzed on a Stimulus Deal, Gives Itself Another Week to Strike One.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Dec. 2020,

[4] Funke, Daniel, et al. “PolitiFact – Celebrities Are Sharing a Misleading Post about Trump’s Response to Coronavirus.” @Politifact, Politifact, 17 Mar. 2020,

[5] Kim, Jiyoon, et al. “The Party System in Korea and Identity Politics.” New Challenges for Maturing Democracies in Korea and Taiwan, Stanford Univ Press, 2014, pp. 71–105.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thompson, Derek. “What’s Behind South Korea’s COVID-19 Exceptionalism?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Oct. 2020,