A decade into a global backlash against liberal democracy, that question is urgent. Aspiring autocrats, from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, cherry-pick from a menu of repressive tactics and technologies—from building surveillance systems to banning independent media outlets—to exert control and retain power. The “China model” is alluring to democracy’s critics, for whom China’s firm handling of the COVID-19 outbreak looks like another proof point for authoritarianism.
Yet good public-health practice doesn’t just require control. It also requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration—habits of mind that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics. Democracies’ ability to cope with COVID-19 will soon be tested; after a proliferation of cases in South Korea, Japan, and Italy in recent days, officials are weighing how to respond. But citizens of democratic nations can reasonably expect a higher level of candor and accountability from their governments.
American citizens, for example, can count on the objectivity and accuracy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between the government and the public in one form or another since the late 1800s. Reliable reporting enables epidemiologists to predict a disease’s trajectory, researchers to develop treatments and vaccines, responders to trace transmission, and the public to protect itself.