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Supporting Governance is Essential to Curbing COVID-19’s Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting millions across the world.  Countries are mobilizing resources to protect their citizens and economies.  Given the surge in cases and accompanying deaths, anything except a public health response might seem peripheral to mitigating the virus’s spread and consequences.  Yet the pandemic permeates arenas beyond this immediate field of vision, and is causing a political crisis that is stressing governance systems globally.  

From Colombia to Mongolia, leaders are trying to manage the crisis in ways that keep democratic institutions functioning and responding to citizens’ needs.  Whether they can do so—and respond to the crisis in a proactive, transparent manner—will shape the trajectory of their countries and impact on American interests. Supporting governance must be integral to any strategy to tackle COVID-19. 

Thankfully, the United States has invested in enabling democratic institutions and actors across the world to deliver for their citizens. Since transparency and responsive governance are essential to effective crisis management, U.S. investments in democracy and governance will help mitigate COVID’s impact.

As the United States formulates its strategy to address the pandemic, tailored assistance to governance actors must be an integral component of our response.  Led by USAID, governance specialists can immediately provide support to help governmental and non-governmental actors develop and proactively communicate plans and public health information to their citizens.  Respected civil society actors can utilize their experience and networks to reinforce public health messages as well as hold leaders accountable.  With a global presence and long-standing relationships with governments and civil society organizations across the globe, USG partners like IRI are well-positioned to step into this role and address this critical threat.

The societal consequences of the pandemic are likely to hit vulnerable democracies and countries with endemic corruption and crime hardest, creating a new set of security challenges that the U.S. will inevitably have to confront.  Developing societies, dependent on commodity rents with only light manufacturing, could experience major economic contractions. Populations will be more susceptible to populist authoritarian appeals.  

Democracy will see setbacks in the days ahead.  Strengthening civil society and helping citizens participate in the search for and implementation of solutions will be key to democratic resilience.  Any long-term strategy must be focused on mitigating these pressures by building strong democratic governance structures and enhancing international cooperation that is best achieved between democracies.  

COVID-19 lays bare one of the many threats that authoritarian states like China pose to Americans.  By suppressing information and coercing their own people, corrupt regimes enable the spread of diseases that, if checked earlier through transparent means, would not be killing U.S. citizens.  Authoritarian regimes quash information that could negatively (but truthfully) portray their leaders’ performance.  Outbreaks of deadly diseases meet their criteria for suppressing facts and pumping out misinformation, as evidenced by China’s attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak.  Steadfast support to strengthen democratic institutions and their advocates will help mitigate the current pandemic’s impact on our citizens and prevent the next outbreak.

Patrick W. Quirk is the Senior Director of Research, Strategy, and the Center for Global Impact IRI and a Nonresident Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution.