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Pandemics and Political Performance

The huge variation in how countries have performed during the pandemic points to deeper underlying political and governance issues that have now come fully into view. In many countries, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, the road ahead will be long and difficult.

STANFORD/GENEVA – The COVID-19 pandemic has created a laboratory for testing different governance systems in the face of a public-health crisis, ultimately revealing massive variance in country performance. For example, countries in East Asia (China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan) tended to do a better job of controlling the pandemic than did many countries in the Americas and Europe.

But these outcomes are not about democratic versus authoritarian government, as some have argued. Among East Asia’s high performers are authoritarian states as well as strong and vibrant democracies. Nor is the difference wholly due to economic resources or public health expertise, considering that poorer countries like Vietnam have done better than many rich countries.

What, then, is behind the divergence in outcomes? While the explanation is doubtless complex, three key factors stand out from a governance perspective: state capacity, social trust, and political leadership.

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