Above the streets of Rwanda’s capital Kigali, police drones blare reminders to socially distance and wear masks. At intersections, citizens are randomly tested and placed into a government-run contact tracing program. Stadiums which once hosted soccer games have been converted into detention centers where some 70,000 arrested Rwandans have been forced to spend the night under armed guard for breaking COVID-19 precautions. At first glance, such oppressive measures appear harmful to the people of Rwanda. However, once we take a step back and put these policies into context, it becomes evident how successful Rwanda has been at preventing the spread of COVID-19. In a densely populated nation of 12.3 million, at the time of writing there have been only 5726 cases and 47 deaths in Rwanda from the coronavirus. For comparison Ohio, a state with around the same population as Rwanda, has had 363,000 cases and 6,020 deaths. Why has a relatively impoverished country like Rwanda done better at fighting the coronavirus than a prosperous superpower like the United States? Have illiberal or hybrid regimes done better at containing COVID-19 than consolidated liberal democracies, and if so, why? Ultimately, in combating the coronavirus, more illiberal governments have done better than their liberal counterparts. Although there are many factors that may account for this trend, I believe there is one primary aspect of liberal democracies that contribute to this: liberalism is harmed when COVID-precautions expand, a difficult trade off for many democracies to willingly make.
It is first important to define what we mean by liberalism, liberal democracies, and hybrid regimes. Philosophy Professor Harvey Girvetz defines liberalism as, “a political and economic doctrine that emphasizes individual autonomy, equality of opportunity, and the protection of individual rights (primarily to life, liberty, and property), originally against the state.” Not to be confused with the American political use of the word liberal to define leftist Democrats, liberalism promotes the ideals of personal freedom and liberty. Such attitudes are further applied to economic activities, with government regulation over businesses viewed as oppressive. Thus, liberal democracies integrate such freedoms into their political and economic landscapes. However, as political scientist Larry Diamond notes, many “third wave” democracies exist in the “political gray zone… between full-fledged democracies and outright dictatorship.” For Diamond, hybrid or illiberal regimes combine aspects of both democratic and authoritarian rule to create a pseudodemocracy. A hybrid regime may engage in elections, but the liberal freedoms that make these elections fair and free are repressed by the state in order to maintain power, thus making said regime an illiberal democracy.
Rwanda is an example of such a hybrid regime. Procedurally, Rwanda has the formal institutions necessary for a democracy: a constitution, legislature, courts and an elected President. However, such institutions are neither free nor fair. By manipulating elections, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has been able to “legitimize” its long term leader, President Paul Kagame. Political opponents have been killed or imprisoned under his regime. The government heavily censors the media, placing a fine and potential jail sentence on those who criticize the President.
Do these illiberal tendencies of hybrid regimes make them better equipped than their liberal democratic counterparts to contain COVID-19? In studying epidemics over the past 60 years, The Economist found that democracies responded more effectively to health crises compared to illiberal governments.
Democratic governments are more accountable to their electorates than dictators, and therefore more motivated to succeed in fighting pandemics. Along with accountability, high transparency in democracies aids health officials in tracking outbreaks. Countries such as China and Iran originally suppressed or denied the threat of COVID-19, making it impossible for international and domestic health experts to stop the virus’s spread early on. Ultimately, the free and transparent exchange of information characteristic of liberal democracies is a boon for fighting pandemics. Although democracies in the past have done better at curtailing health crises, the severity of COVID-19 has required extreme illiberal containment measures that were not needed in previous epidemics. In examining how differing types of government have fared under the coronavirus, Professor Carla Norloff found in her recent study that less free countries have had lower case fatality rates than freer ones (% Covid diagnoses that result in death).
In theorizing why freer countries have responded worse to the coronavirus, Norloff contends that the various features of liberal democracy make them more susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus. She states,
One might also make the case that lockdowns are harder to implement, and certainly harder to sustain, in liberal democracies. This would apply, in particular, to countries where individual rights are protected…. Countries operating under electoral democracy may also face greater pressure to lift lockdowns due to their detrimental effect on the economy, everyday life and morale, precisely because they may otherwise be punished in elections. It is also harder to lock down countries where independent thought and expression is valued, as one would expect to be the case in countries with high degrees of freedom of expression and deliberation.
Therefore, many of the liberal rights that are so integral to the democratic way of life limit these governments’ ability to combat the coronavirus. However, was it not previously stated that the free movement of information, a prominent liberal value, was beneficial in combating COVID-19? The early unregulated circulation of poorly researched information made young people act cavalierly to the virus as they thought it would not affect them, thus demonstrating that such free flow of information was counterproductive. Therefore, illiberal regimes may in fact partially benefit from their stringent control of the spread of information.
Given this evidence, it is important to consider why many liberal democracies like South Korea or Taiwan have done extraordinarily well at combating the coronavirus. Although many factors have contributed to their success, I contend that for these relatively new liberal democracies it has been easier to implement suppressive COVID-19 precautions. In countries like the United states and Great Britain, it has been difficult for these types of societies to give up the freedom that has been consolidated and supported over centuries, a historical context that has not been foundational embedded in newer liberal regimes. Although both liberal, old and new democracies differ in their reluctance to sacrifice individual liberties, giving newer democracies who are comparatively less protective of their freedom an important advantage in addressing the coronavirus.
as the low fatality rates such as those in Rwanda show, illiberal regimes have
done better at implementing the suppressive policies necessary to fight
COVID-19 than their freer liberal counterparts. The liberalism ingrained in
American society has impeded the adoption of freedom and limiting measures
necessary to contain the coronavirus – a painful trade-off that hybrid regimes
have not had to contend with. Freer democracies have always been associated
with better standards of living
than their oppressive authoritarian counterparts. However, when it comes to
protecting the public during a global health crisis, this convention does not
necessarily hold. For America and other liberal democracies to survive this
immediate health crisis, individuals must willingly accept impediments to their
freedom. Ultimately, these sacrifices help maintain the stability and security
of our society, conditions that are foundational in allowing long term liberty
 Terrence Ball, “Liberalism,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., February 5, 2020), https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberalism.
 Larry Diamond, “Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes ,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002): p. 23.
 Marina Rafti, “A Perilous Path to Democracy: Political Transition and Authoritarian Consolidation in Rwanda,” Institute of Development Policy and Management, March 2008, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6698801.pdf.
 Economist Staff, “Democracies Contain Epidemics Most Effectively,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, June 2020), https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/06/06/democracies-contain-epidemics-most-effectively.
 Carla Norrlöf (2020) “Is covid-19 a liberal democratic curse? Risks for liberal international order,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 33:5, 807, DOI: 10.1080/09557571.2020.1812529
 Ibid 807.
Hey Jacob! Thanks for posting on this. It is important to look at instances where illiberal democracies may be more beneficial than liberal democracies in order to better recognize that a full democracy is not necessarily superior in all instances. Rwanda’s response to the pandemic was interesting. Should the United States have taken similar precautions to Rwanda? If the U.S. criminalized breaking quarantine, fewer lives would have been lost, but, putting aside questions of feasibility, it may have been a desirable policy.
The consequences of illiberalism are clear. Limiting people’s individual rights or their ability to freely participate in their democracy seems abhorrent when looking at it from the perspective of a western democracy. However, your post leads me to ask the inevitable question: How many lives would have had to be lost for the United States to consider a temporary suspension of individual rights? Australia, another Western-European-style democracy implemented restrictions on interstate travel as well as quarantine requirements for all. Their numbers have dropped and, currently, the CDC rates them as only a level-1 risk. Restrictions on interstate travel are not “illiberal” in the same way as imprisoning people who break COVID-19 policies. However, it seemed to work for the Australian liberal democracy. Do you think that similar provisions, if implemented in the United States, would be equally as accepted? Or are the cultural differences between the two countries too great?
Can some negative consequences of liberalism be felt in other areas? There may come a time where the United States may have to suspend individual rights if national security is threatened for example. Will the United States be able to adapt by limiting individual freedoms? I doubt the American culture’s ability to accept such limitations. That being said, liberalism is a danger to be embraced not because of its dangers, but in spite of them.
So glad I came across your post. I’m planning to do my case study on Rwanda, so your detail on covid statistics from over a year ago is incredibly helpful. I think you’re bang on the nose about why illiberal regimes, including Rwanda, have been more effective at mitigating at least the healthcare consequences of Covid-19. Now a year since your post, mass vaccination is the goal, and Rwanda has again proved that their autocratic approach has been, well, pretty effective. As of February 24th, 2022, 58.2% of Rwandans are fully vaccinated, while 67.1% have had at least 1 dose. The number of administered Covid-19 jabs per 100 people for Rwanda is 124.7. For context, the average for the continent of Africa is 28.88.
A system in which politicians are accountable to the will of their voters inevitably makes a system in which politicians accountable to the stupidity of their voters. Autocracies, Rwanda included, do not have this problem. When the general will does not line up with the general interest, an Autocracy in the right hands presents an advantage. You’ve enunciated this sentiment perfectly, and I appreciate your application of more theoretical political science to these specific issues.
Great work! – AJ