COVID-19 and the Power of Comprehensive Governance

June 30, 2020
Arif Lalani_Headshot
Reuters/Loren Elliott

This article is a part of Global Cooperation after COVID-19, an essay series offering analysis of the post-pandemic world.


he coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has triggered a range of approaches by governments across the world. Do their responses accelerate the acceptance of “comprehensive democratic governance” as a global public value?

While it is too early to draw conclusions about any of the trends related to the global pandemic — we are not out of the crisis, cannot predict the severity of second waves or the trajectory of economic recovery and its timelines — we can make some observations.

A Complex Governance Test

Addressing the COVID-19 emergency is a national governance resilience test. It has tested more than health sector strength. Responding well is a complex task requiring action beyond the health sector and significant coordination and capacity across the public, private, security and civic sectors.

As data on health capacity shows, countries with the highest rates of intensive care units (ICUs) also have some of the highest rates of COVID-related death and infections. Portugal, with one of the lowest per capita ICU counts in Europe — just 4.2 per 100,000 — has one of the lowest death and spread rates in Europe (compared to France, UK, Italy and Spain). Flattening the curve was designed to make resorting to the health system a last resort. Therefore, all other aspects of governance and society need to be strong in order for flattening the curve to work.

Authority without Authoritarianism

In the “lockdown” phase, governments have had to navigate between protecting lives and livelihoods, and exercise authority without reverting to authoritarianism. A number of those succeeding have a strong comprehensive democratic governance framework, including Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Germany, Portugal, and the particular cases of New Zealand and Sweden. 

New Zealand implemented some of the strictest measures anywhere in the world. At their highest level, only supermarkets and pharmacies were allowed to open — no takeaway meals from restaurants for Kiwis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the lockdown as “the most significant restriction on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history.” The goal was the total elimination of the virus, an objective few other countries attempted and only New Zealand seems to have accomplished thus far. Sweden chose a different and controversial path. It opted to strike a balance in protecting both lives and livelihoods. The government took what it thought was a risk based on the best interest of its people: outline the right course of action to take and trust your citizens to take it, without strict enforcement. Whether Sweden was right (its numbers might look better after others have had their second waves) is yet to be proven, but the important point is the confidence with which the Swedish government felt it could take its decision. Sweden and New Zealand are at opposite ends of the world, and have implemented entirely opposite policy responses to COVID-19. But it is noteworthy that they rank number three and four, respectively, on the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2019. Their approaches are different but in each case the confidence with which they are able to implement them is based on a comprehensive and resilient governance platform.

Where comprehensive democratic governance is weaker, the move to authoritarianism is stronger. This move is not limited to China. Responses in a number of countries have endangered, if not tilted, the balance between exercising authority and reverting to authoritarianism. As was the case in the so-called “war on terror,” when governments enacted restrictive and intrusive measures, so too has COVID-19 been exploited by some to justify rule by decree, restrict media freedom, suppress political opposition, extend rule and expand digital monitoring into surveillance at the expense of individual rights. Decades after the “war on terror,” resilient democracies — those with independent judiciaries and strong media freedoms — saw the pendulum swing back to balance.

In the new normal that will emerge, the good governance capacity of states, particularly in the digital domain, will have greater value alongside more traditional determinants of power.

In the face of COVID-19, what allows democratic countries to be able to act quickly, exercise authority and take difficult decisions — Chancellor Angela Merkel to make only two live statements to her citizens on COVID-19 and command respect; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to impose some of the strictest limitations on liberties in the country’s history; Sweden to take a different and risky course, which its citizens follow in isolation from the rest of Europe (and the world) — while others at either end of the range have not had the same success? The answer is broader than the ability to hold free elections, and certainly many governments do not have strong parliamentary majorities or central authority. The components of a comprehensive democratic governance model are at work: cooperation between political leadership, for decision making; trust between the government and the governed, for consent; a strong public service, for policy advice and execution; rule of law, for public order and democratic enforcement; and credible and independent media, for accountability and dissemination of information.

Digital Promise and Challenge

In the “deconfinement” phase, this comprehensive governance capacity will be equally important, particularly where digital technology’s crucial role in containment and prevention will challenge governments to find the right balance between individual privacy and collective protection, and to find it fast. Governments will need to ensure transparency, oversight and commitment to protecting individual rights as new challenges, posed by the need to monitor second and future waves, are created. The first dividing lines on tracing technology are clear — voluntary versus mandatory tracing; centralized (government servers) versus decentralized (kept on individual phones) data storage. South Korea, for example, has used smartphone location data to track down citizens who may have been exposed to the virus.  In Hong Kong, electronic location-tracking wristbands have been used for new passenger arrivals for a period of two weeks.

The Power of Comprehensive Democratic Governance

In the new normal that will emerge, the comprehensive governance capacity of states, particularly in the digital domain, will have greater value alongside more traditional determinants of power. Comprehensive democratic governance could become prominent as a global public value. It is relevant that traditional determinants of power — wealth, military strength, even population size — have not particularly been advantages in the fight against an enemy requiring a comprehensive coordinated approach. In the years to come, the likes of New Zealand, Sweden, Portugal, Taiwan and others might not be part of exclusive clubs such as the Group of Twenty, but their experiences may be more sought, and their governing models more valued, to address a host of complex global challenges — from the growing movement to address racism globally, to the challenges of managing the digital economy, to mitigating climate change, to being ready to manage for the next health or migration crisis. All of these problems will require, and likely give advantage to those that have a strong and comprehensive democratic governance platform. It will be in our interest to promote comprehensive democratic governance as a global public value, at the same time as others forcefully advance an authoritarian model.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Arif Z. Lalani is a distinguished fellow at both the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, a senior advisor with StrategyCorp, and a former Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Essay Series

We are in the midst of fighting the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis, but it is already clear that the impacts will be manifold and enduring. It is not too early to reflect on the lasting impact that the outbreak is sure to have on global cooperation, globalization, faith in public action and in science, social cohesion, and the trade-off between civil liberties and personal privacy.