Supervised by: Tuscany Parkin BA LLB (Rhodes) BCL (Oxon). Tuscany graduated with the BCL Masters of Law from the University of Oxford earlier this year, specialising in Jurisprudence, Competition Law and Comparative Contract Law. She is currently reading for the MPhil in Legal Philosophy (particularly the philosophy of contract law). Previously, she obtained her BA in English Literature and LLB Law with honours from Rhodes University.
COVID-19 has ravaged the familiar tranquillity of our lives and brought with it chaos and confusion. As citizens, we look to the government as the leading institution of our country. As we watch how different nations progress with combating the virus on a global level, the efficiency of different governmental systems will inevitably be compared. Contrasting the effectiveness of the totalitarian nations’ response to those of republics brings up two crucial questions: Which form of government is able to keep its citizens safer, democratic or authoritarian? And do these governments have a constitutional obligation to help citizens on a national and global level? For the purposes of this paper, we look to China as an example of autocracy and the United Kingdom as a representative government. Neither country saw a shift in executive during the pandemic, while both are global powers that made visible efforts to contain the pandemic. In this paper, we will employ statistics to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of the two nations’ responses, while also critically examining the reliability of these statistics. We will then explore the obligations of wealthier nations to aid struggling countries from ethical and political perspectives, debate the fairness of comparing these two drastically different jurisdictions and finally evaluate the overall effectiveness of each system.
We can judge the effectiveness of these systems by virtue of two factors: the first being the nationwide distribution of COVID-testing and the second being the number of COVID cases during June of 2020. Mass testing allows nations to approximate the number of cases in the country and act accordingly with orders such as quarantining, social distancing, and shutting down public areas. The juncture, June of 2020, was the six-month mark from the discovery of COVID-10 and the beginning of responses for most countries around the world. For reference, we take the term ‘authoritarian’ to mean a dictatorship in a nation where complete obedience to the government is required. The term ‘republican’ we define as a democracy where citizens have freedom of speech.
Despite officially denying the existence of COVID for around a month, China was able to reduce cases to the point where lockdown restrictions in the disease epicentre of the country could be completely lifted within three months. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), China had its first case in December, but chances are that this coronavirus could have appeared as early as November. China at first denied COVID and cured likely COVID cases as pneumonia (1), while attempting to deemphasize the threat of the virus by forcing a Chinese doctor and whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang, to sign a document withdrawing his previous statements on the severity of the disease (2). Cases surged, and in January 2020 China moved to control cases by shutting down the nation’s disease epicentre, Wuhan, and cutting it off from the rest of the country (3). As scientists studied the disease further, China was able to create and approve testing kits. Initially, the effort for testing in China was difficult. Cases escalated every day and citizens of Wuhan waited in long lines to receive a test. There were also test shortages, which led to the usage of government unapproved, unreliable homemade testing kits assembled by doctors (4). Wuhan’s initial lockdown restrictions eased in March and were abolished in early April 2020. However, in May, six new cases were reported and the PRC Government announced a 10 day period of testing the entire city [excluding children younger than six and those recently tested] (5).
Reasoning for China’s Accomplishments
The successes of China’s response could be accredited in part to their policy changes after the SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak, including the establishment of a national healthcare system and a precedent for holding government officials accountable (6). In fact, during SARS, the Chinese government became so strict with handling disease that when cases increased exponentially overnight, the Mayor of Beijing was ‘dismissed’ (7). An order was passed by the then-President of China stating that persons in power who do not follow set legal guidelines for disease prevention and containment may be ‘given sanctions according to law’ (8). This evidence demonstrates that this isn’t China’s first experience of an epidemic. Not only did they have resources at their disposal, but they had also utilized them before only 20 years ago. By June 2020, China had 59 new confirmed cases and zero deaths for the month, although a WHO investigative team was denied “raw patient data” on early cases by the PRC Government (9, 10).
The UK’s Response
The United Kingdom, while more communicative about their policies, did not contain the virus as swiftly as China and continued to report thousands of cases across months. The United Kingdom’s scenario was far different, as COVID did not originate there and the government has been mainly transparent. The UK’s first recorded COVID case was on 23 January (11). In March, the Prime Minister announced lockdown measures. Days later, The UK Parliament’s Coronavirus Act 2020 was granted Royal Assent, permitting the utilization of emergency powers by the British Government. While Chinese authorities imposed a specifically harsh lockdown on Wuhan, over the rest of 2020 and 2021, Prime Minister Johnson would launch a series of national lockdowns and only some regional lockdowns. Lockdowns eased in June 2020 and by that time, the UK had 8,868 new confirmed cases and 1,180 deaths for the month (12).
Reliability of Statistics
One point of concern regarding China’s COVID numbers is the reliability of their statistics. As an authoritarian state, the government has the right to imprison anyone it deems to be spreading false news in the name of national security, which to a certain extent could be beneficial towards keeping the country in order. However, this means the government also has the power to withhold facts from the general public, and the accuracy of China’s reported numbers has been under investigation by several organisations. Information collected on the 8 crematories in Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic, showed that they all worked around the clock, operated six times higher than normal and required the importation of extra staff. In cremating around 2100 bodies a day, their industry suggests that the officially reported number of 2,524 deaths was not completely accurate (13). There has been a historical trend of local officials inflating or deflating statistics in authoritarian states as attempts to appease the executive officer, creating warped perceptions of the nation’s successes and covering up its problems. One example is the way Mao Zedong, former leader of China, pushed farmers to produce more and more, leading to falsely inflated numbers. Commanders took more crops than villages could afford, the numbers were continually inflated, and what would be known as The Great Famine occurred from 1959 to 1961. During that time, at least 36 million people starved to death and anyone who tried to tell the truth was tortured and killed (14). This is a clear demonstration of the destructive power that an authoritarian government may unwittingly cause due to a lack of clear communication. Even now, the Great Famine is a taboo subject in China and books on it have been banned from the country, causing many to worry that such an event could easily happen again when facts are manipulated.
While the UK’s statistics may not be completely reliable either, it has a booming investigative journalism industry and drastically less censorship, making it more likely that errors or cover-ups would be pointed out. The competence of China and the UK’s governments in dealing with COVID cases is heavily impacted by factors both internal, relating to their intrinsic legal systems, and external, concerning politics and the general population.
Reasons for Varying Levels of Efficiency
China’s ability to swiftly contain the virus within Wuhan can be credited to the way its executive officer had the power to implement decisions without going through court, whereas the United Kingdom demanded a more complicated legislative process. Xi Jinping, leader of China, was able to demand a lockdown in the name of public safety immediately and without approval from a legislative body or any form of checks and balances. On the other hand, the United Kingdom’s response was less straightforward. While the Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed and approved in a matter of days, Britain went into three national lockdowns [two in 2020 and one in 2021] and had over 8,800 more cases than China did in June of 2020. Although laws in the United Kingdom must be approved by the Houses of Parliament and then the Queen, during the pandemic, which classifies as an emergency, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had the executive power to directly implement policies, much like Xi Jinping. The UK’s slower response could be attributed to the fact that the government had also been preoccupied with the UK’s exit from the European Union. Celebratory events and even new 5-pence coins had been lined up for the 31st of January, the date of the United Kingdom’s exit, thus rendering the nation unready for the COVID crisis (15).
Republican states tend to see their legislation more affected by politics and current affairs than authoritarian states, as leaders are regularly replaced via elections and thus need to win over the general population with campaigns and media presences. For instance, Boris Johnson was involved in multiple scandals in April 2021, including accusations that he declared he would ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’, drumming up gossip in the newspapers and threatening his position in the upcoming local elections. This required him to go on national television in order to deny such allegations and repair his public image, thus making actually dealing with COVID less of a priority for his team (16).
However, corruption was evident in China’s COVID testing aspect: production of testing was granted to just three companies, all of which various government officials held personal ties. Because only these three companies had been given the right to distribute tests, a shortage arose. This could have caused further deaths and higher numbers of cases in China (17). Also, when the EU conducted an investigation into disinformation, the PRC Government allegedly pressured the EU to water down the conclusion of the report (18). These results bring up a clear question of whether time and perhaps lives should be sacrificed for those ruling a country, especially if the decisions are influenced by partisan politics and optics, and whether the general population should sacrifice their power and entrust the public’s safety in the hands of a dictator, exposing themselves to heightened risks of potential corruption.
Confidence in the Government
The COVID results of a nation is affected by the citizens’ trust towards the government, an area in which China is doing better than England. According to online surveys, trust in the Chinese government has increased to 98% because of the pandemic (19), which in many cases might be beneficial. For instance, Chinese citizens are more likely to be willing to follow policies obediently without any objections. However, this opens up possibilities for the government to abuse their power, demonstrated by the way China allegedly downplayed the number of confirmed cases and deaths, potentially giving citizens false confidence. Meanwhile, the UK has experienced the opposite effect, with citizens’ trust in the government dropping significantly. Additionally, those in the UK are more concerned about false or misleading news from organisations and the reliability of the government-issued statistics, which could be positive in
the sense that they would not rely on the government’s statistics and fact-check their sources of information to get a more accurate view of the big picture. However, the low level of trust in the government could lead to civil unrest, with citizens refusing to cooperate with the government in combating the spread of COVID, for example, in the form of protests against anti-lockdown policies, potentially setting back the nation’s progress with the pandemic so far.
From an Ethical Perspective: Kantian Theory
From an ethical standpoint in accordance with Kantian theory, the correct decision is the one that yields the most net good. However, the definition of ‘net good’ itself is often subject to debate, as demonstrated in the classic ‘Trolley Problem’ in moral philosophy, in one variation of which the decision-maker has to choose between killing a larger number of people or a smaller amount of people who mean more to them on a personal level. In a republic, the general population would likely be prioritised over high-ranking government officials, while in a monarchy or dictatorship, those in power might be viewed as more important, depending on how each nation defines the best outcome of a bad situation. Philosopher John Stuart Mill’s essay ‘Utilitarianism’ describes the theory as having three basic principles: firstly, that happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value, secondly, that any action causing happiness is morally correct and vice versa and thirdly, that everyone’s happiness is equally important (20). This line of thinking opens up many caveats for exploitation, because happiness is qualitative and in nations that do not grant its citizens freedom of speech like North Korea, those in power have the opportunity to act for personal rather than public gain and manipulate the facts to make it appear as though they have the nation’s best interests at heart. For instance, North Korea has a network of ‘re-education’ camps across the country, which are hard labour camps where those who fall foul of the government, for instance wealthy merchants who are ‘earning too much’, are allegedly forced to work in dangerous conditions with very little food or other provisions. Under the guise of ‘re-educating’ them, opposers of the regime are allegedly tortured and made to suffer (21). Therefore, even on a national level, it is difficult to discern which course of action will produce the most happiness for everyone because the motives for such decision-making are constantly sullied by political power-grabs.
In nations like the UK, executives would argue that the public can expedite policies and legislation in an emergency just as quickly as a dictatorship could, but nations like China would simply disagree because the two are completely different systems, the former in which legislation slows down the process of policy-making while the latter allows the top executive to make split-second decisions without having them debated and discussed at length, making the implementation of such decisions much more immediate. Despite this obvious advantage of efficiency that authoritarian states have, the main problem is that the lack of separation of powers often leads to selfish actions. Utilitarianism in the ‘Trolley problem’ highlights the benefit of sacrificing the good of the minority for the greater good of the majority, but how often is this really the case in real life?
If it is indeed true that either China or the UK’s system of government is more effective in dealing with the pandemic, the next step towards Kant’s ideal of ‘net good’ would theoretically be helping others on a global scale. Both the United Kingdom and China have devoted a portion of their vaccines to other nations, with the former planning to donate over 100 million doses to poorer countries by 2022 (22) and the latter having donated around 18.5 million doses to over 90 countries as of May 2021 (23). In accordance with Kantian theory, it would, at least at a superficial level, appear that it is the ethical responsibility of nations such as China and the UK that are faring better to send vaccinations to countries that are not coping as well. However, many people don’t believe in the threat of COVID and countries such as Egypt, where the government has blamed external enemies for the virus (24), have cited their religion or mass unrecognition for not fighting back against COVID, prompting the question of whether help should be forced upon them in the name of utilitarianism when it is not what they want in the first place. In April 2020, in the United States, pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for refusing to shut down his church and encouraging the congregants to shake hands because they weren’t ‘pansies’ (25), which highlights the problem between two clashing ideologies: the idea that everyone’s happiness is equal and should have freedom of religion versus the idea that governments should protect global citizens and ensure their good health in order to do ‘net good’ for the world population.
Politics are interwoven into every major decision made by any government in modern society, including the decision of aiding other countries during the pandemic. For example, with economic treaties and contracts, the countries are bound together by law. On the other side of the spectrum, governments may not want to add fuel to the fire when specific nations already have pre-existing disputes, such as the trade war and clash of ideologies between the US and China. The distribution of aid in ‘enemy’ countries may cause backlash in both nations due to mutual suspicion and might even trigger a war in a situation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, especially if one side suspects the other of smuggling in harmful substances or deliberately sabotaging its people. For instance, Al-Shabaab, an Islamic group, told people in the African Union that they were being used as ‘guinea pigs’ to test China’s vaccines, causing no more than 20% of the available vaccines to actually be received by individuals in Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe (26).
Additionally, global superpowers have been accused of using vaccines to rally the political support of other countries. China, which recently donated and sold over 165 million doses of its vaccines to Latin America, is causing countries like Chile, El Salvador and Brazil to heavily rely on Chinese vaccines while other countries with vaccine shortages such as Honduras and Paraguay have both stepped up to state that China has offered them vaccines in return for the termination of their diplomatic relations with Taiwan, an island country of which China long claimed possession. Meanwhile, in the wake of Brexit, the UK has negotiated the termination of deals with countries such as Chile, Ivory Coast and Jordan which it had been automatically a part of as an EU member state (28), and at time of writing it still has not donated its surplus vaccines to other countries. This could potentially put it at a disadvantage as, unlike China, it is not gaining political favour.
Evaluating the Fairness of Such Comparisons
The political, legal and social contexts of China and the UK are drastically different, prompting the question of whether it is fair to compare the two methods of jurisdiction and conclude that one is better. The starting points of the two governments when it comes to tackling COVID are likely very different, as the UK is on the path to gaining more than 100 million surplus vaccines and yet has not donated any (29), while China, a country in which 1.3 billion more people live than in the UK, has already donated millions of vaccines to struggling countries with explicit motives to increase its global standing. Fundamentally, the basis of their governments are also on opposite ends of the spectrum, as the UK is democratic and China is authoritarian, meaning the two operate on different ideologies regarding management of a nation. This is the case for almost all countries in the world, even those who have similar legal systems: for instance, in French and German contract law, there is the concept of ‘good faith’, where both parties are presumed to behave fairly, but there is no such idea in English contract law.
However, it can also be argued that, in this particular context of COVID-19, the English and Chinese systems of pandemic management can be compared because, although their political and social climates vary, they both have the same fundamental value of wanting to stop the spread of COVID, even if their reasons for this goal are different.
The immense differences between the autocracy and the republic prove that each response was different and, accordingly, had different results. China dealt with an uncertain start riddled with corruption from only hiring three companies with personal ties to officials to make official tests, to concealing the spread of the virus at first. Nonetheless, by June of 2020, China had one of the lowest numbers of official cases in the world and began to reopen.
The United Kingdom’s results were quite different. Although they didn’t see their first COVID case until January, they had been informed of the coronavirus’ unforgiving and fast-paced spread since December. The government quickly expedited the passing of a bill concerning emergency powers for the Prime Minister, which proved to be beneficial for the UK in the later parts of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom’s cases were nearing 10,000 by June of 2020 and testing was not then widely available.
Consequently, today both nations have been able to get a hold on COVID-19, with mask mandates and social distancing still looming over citizens, but it is undeniable that China’s policies have been far more effective in terms of official numbers. The drastic statistical differences between the two countries suggest that the authoritarian system is by far superior, specifically when comparing the two landmarks of testing and cases in June 2020 to the results in the republican nation. However, when evaluating the success of such an autocratic superpower, one must also call into question the reliability of their statistics. The results prove how authoritarian nations are likely to muffle new information that could lay blame on them, especially if the situation at hand is escalating rapidly. Meanwhile, the free nation’s system had an overall poorer response, with more cases and less governmental efficiency, but the results may be considered somewhat more accurate.
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25 Du Mez, Some Evangelists deny the coronavirus threat. It’s because they love tough guys (Washington Post 2020)
26 Sguazzin, Hoije, China Suspicion,‘Foreign Plot’ Fears Hamper Africa Vaccine Plan (Bloomberg Equality)
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28 Edgington, What trade deals has the UK done so far? (British Broadcasting Corporation News 2021)