Business Matters

Calamities and democracies

No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Amartya Sen’s comment and the criticism it received from some academics apparently made little impact on the panel that awarded him the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1998 for his work on poverty, gender inequality, and the UN’s Human Development Index. But it was this observation that caught the attention and assent of public intellectuals and the general public.

Famines do not suddenly strike without warning, and experience has established measures to address their occurrence. In democracies, access to opposition leaders and a free press make it difficult to conceal emerging problems. Free and regular elections hold ruling governments accountable and pressure leaders to respond or risk rejection by angry voters at the polls. Unencumbered by such restraints, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the grand project to place agriculture under a collective system, left an estimated 30 million peasants dead from famine.


A democratic system obviously does not provide a country the same kind of protection against other calamities, like epidemics. A new virus can suddenly appear and spread at a speed that challenges the scientific, bureaucratic, and financial resources of even highly developed, wealthy democracies, as demonstrated by the quick migration of COVID-19 from Wuhan in China to Japan, South Korea, and Italy. Unlike famines, the cure for stricken patients needing immediate care is not clear and preventive vaccines must undergo time-consuming tests. An authoritarian, centralized system can mobilize with impressive speed. China built two hospitals in 10 days, set up 500 quarantine hotels, and sealed off 50 million residents in their cities, if not in their homes. Such draconian measures democracies would find difficult to implement quickly.

But the authoritarian system that enabled the efficient deployment of the state’s coercive powers also permitted the punishment of Wuhan doctors who had sounded the alert about the new virus without government authorization. As had happened with SARS in 2003, censorship delayed countermeasures against the spread of COVID-19. Knowing the aversion of authoritarian leaders to public exposure of government failings, equally authoritarian local officials instinctively protect themselves by suppressing bad news, and thus blindsided Beijing on the scale of the problem.


Tight, top-down management also restrains remedial action at lower levels. In the Philippines, greater autonomy from the center arguably helped contain COVID-19. The presidential ban on travelers from Hubei, the province of Wuhan, came on Jan. 31. On Jan. 23, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo had dismissed any need to ban travelers from Wuhan. Notwithstanding this opinion, Carmelo Arcilla, executive director of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), ordered on the same day the immediate suspension of the six weekly direct flights between Wuhan and Kalibo provided by Pan Pacific Air and Royal Air Charter Services. The CAB initiative, supported by Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat, was implemented even before the World Health Organization announced on Jan. 26 that COVID-19 posed a high global risk. On Jan. 28, the Bureau of Immigration officially stopped issuing visa-on-arrival to Chinese nationals (although

the policy was unfortunately undermined by corrupt officials through the “pastillas” bribery arrangements).

Local government units also exercised their authority to avoid the risk of infection in the case of the cruise ship World Dream. Cleared by the Board of Quarantine as “safe and clear” from COVID-19, World Dream, sailing from Hong Kong with 778 passengers “authorized to travel,” docked at the Port of Manila on Jan. 28. Its itinerary called for a tour of Subic Bay the following day. Protests from their constituencies enabled Olongapo Mayor Rolen Paulino Jr. and Subic Mayor John Khonghun to press successfully for the cancellation of this tour and World Dream’s return to Hong Kong. In Cebu, Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia on Jan. 31 ordered a 14-day quarantine for arrivals from China.

Epidemics may require drastic control measures at which authoritarian governments are adept. But the public backlash provoked by China’s action to discipline COVID-19 whistle-blowers recalls Sen’s insight that public health experts applaud: Democracies recognize their accountability to their citizens, whose access to information and ability to act on their own enhance the acceptance and effectiveness of coercive precautions.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).


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TAGS: Calamities, COVID-19, famine, Nobel Prize in Economic Science
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