Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, another scourge has taken hold across the world: government misinformation. In recent weeks the lengths of this deception have started to come to light. On June 23rd, Donald Trump, President of the world’s hardest-hit country, bragged about slowing down coronavirus testing at a campaign rally. His reasoning? That more testing meant “finding more cases” and making his administration look bad. The U.S. considers itself a beacon of global democracy, but its President now prides himself on lying to his people. This begs the question, what have countries’ responses to coronavirus revealed about the state of global democracy? The U.S. is far from the only country in the world to be accused of trying to hide the human cost of COVID-19. But have other democracies been the most transparent? How do their tactics compare to more authoritarian nations?
China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has come under intense international scrutiny, especially from the United States. According to Bloomberg, the American Intelligence Community told the White House on the 1st of April that “China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete.” News out of China just over two weeks later backed up this claim. Seemingly overnight, the number of deaths reported in Wuhan, the original epicentre, jumped from 2,179 to 3,869. China’s draconian information laws make the true number of victims an impossible task. It’s probable that we’ll never know the true scale of the virus’ impact on China.
In perhaps some of the most bizarre responses to the pandemic, President John Magufuli of Tanzania – who has been regularly accused of running a dictatorship by opposition politicians – and bona fide dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny or downplay the spread of coronavirus. In March, Magufuli temporarily halted COVID-19 tests after he claimed that decoy samples from goats and pawpaws came back positive. The Tanzanian government then ignored social distancing measures and actually encouraged people to gather in the church. Nevertheless, on June 8th Magufuli declared Tanzania was miraculously coronavirus-free. He attributed this success to the prayers of Tanzanian citizens. However, Zitto Kabwe, leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency, dismissed the government’s claim by arguing that three hospitals in Dar es Salaam were full of coronavirus patients at the time of the announcement. Tanzania has now not released any infection data for nearly two months.
External observers have been concerned that Turkmenistan has been hiding infections for months. Berdimuhamedow has continually claimed that the country has had no cases. On April 7th, Turkmenistan even held a mass cycling rally to celebrate World Health Day. In an article for the BBC, Professor Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine revealed that Turkmenistan previously hid outbreaks of plague and HIV. The article also refers to an anonymous source that stated that citizens don’t speak about the virus for fear of reprisals. The country’s denial of COVID-19 cases therefore appears both predictable and unreliable.
Elsewhere in Brazil, prior to an intervention by the Supreme Court, the country’s health ministry announced that it would no longer release public COVID-19 death tolls. The ministry had also taken down existing statistics from its website. This deliberate repression of vital information is typical of the Bolsonaro regime’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From labelling the virus as nothing more than a ‘little flu’ to claiming that Brazilians ‘never catch anything,’ Bolsonaro and his allies have undertaken a campaign of misinformation to downplay the seriousness of Brazil’s health crisis.
With Great Power Comes No Responsibility?
Experts’ assessments of the motivations behind Bolsonaro’s actions provide some insight into why authoritarian governments are so desperate to repress information on COVID-19. Bolsanoro’s willful ignorance is purposeful. First, it allows him to wash his hands of the horrors unfolding around him. As Oliver Stuenkel – Professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation – told the BBC, Bolsonaro is desperate not ‘to be seen as the person responsible for what very well may become the worst economic crisis in Brazil’s history.’ Downplaying COVID-19 allows Bolsonaro the plausible deniability he craves. Second, as Miguel Lago and Alessandra Orofino have written in the New York Times, Bolsonaro’s actions undermine his enemies. State governments and authorities are extremely powerful in Brazil. They are free to set out their own laws and many have implemented stringent lockdown measures. Bolsonaro has used COVID-19 to stoke hostility towards these institutions, many of whom are opposed to his regime. His carefree attitude has inspired his supporters to rebel against lockdowns and rally against their local leaders. Hiding the true scale of the pandemic has therefore been a deliberate ploy by Bolsonaro to shift public anger away from himself and towards state governments. His actions suggest that authoritarian leaders deny the scale of COVID-19 in their nations to absolve themselves of responsibility and to cement their own power.
The Human Freedom Index (HFI), released by the CATO institute every year, measures the levels of freedom in countries across the globe. In 2019, Turkmenistan failed to make the list due to the lack of available information. China and Tanzania ranked 126th and 118th respectively. Bolsonaro’s Brazil came in at 109th. None of these countries are bastions of democracy. However, countries higher up the HFI have also been exploiting arguably underhand tactics to artificially decrease their national coronavirus death tolls. Have their actions been driven by similar motivations?
Mexico and Poland have prided themselves on their handling of the pandemic. Both nations – ranked 92nd and 40th by the HFI – have also stirred controversy with the way they report COVID-19 deaths. In Poland, coroners attribute death from coronavirus to those that have died directly from the virus, excluding any who fell victim to a combination of COVID-19 and other conditions. Institut Montaigne, a French think-tank, has argued that Poland’s numbers should therefore be treated with caution. Meanwhile, Azam Ahmed of the New York Times has highlighted the thousands of unreported coronavirus deaths in Mexico City. Again, people dying from respiratory failure in Mexico are also being cremated without received an autopsy or even a coronavirus test. Azam goes on to claim that coronavirus has claimed up to three times as many victims in Mexico than the government is willing to admit.
Poland and Mexico have not imposed cultures of silence like Turkmenistan, China, Tanzania or Brazil. However, they still have tried to re-assert their authority and shift blame through dishonest methods. They have exploited artificially deflated death tolls as a badge of pride to ensure their citizens are being protected, all while thousands are being neglected and ignored.
Some of Europe’s most established democracies have faced accusations that, like Mexico and Poland, their death tolls don’t reflect reality. The symptoms of COVID-19 often don’t show for two weeks and the virus can kill within three or four. Nevertheless, since March 25th, coroners in the UK have only examined the corpses of those that have died without being seen by a GP within 28 days of their death. T.J Coles of the London Economic points out that this means that many who contracted the disease and passed away since they last saw their GP has gone unaccounted for. Cremations have also been fast-tracked, meaning that retrospective autopsies have been impossible. The UK’s Chief Coroner has even admitted that “deaths which are not required in law to be reported to the coroner … could be the majority.”
For a long time in the UK, the government’s official figures only also only included deaths in hospitals. Public Health England initially argued that it was “very unlikely” that care home residents would be infected. However, this proved to be false. By the 16th of June, over 16,000 people had died in British care homes. Only after pressure from charities such as Age UK and the Alzheimer’s Society and care home whistle-blowers did the government begin including care home casualties in daily death tolls on April 29th.
Like the UK, the French government only began including care home deaths in its official figures in April. However, it still does not account for death in the “wider community,” which mainly refers to those who die at home. On the 26th of April, the French Union of General Practitioners claimed that around 9,000 people had perished in the wider community setting. These figures are still being excluded from overall death tallies. In Spain, Madrid’s regional president Isabel Ayuso admitted that most of the 3,000 people who died in local care homes were never tested for COVID-19. Ultimately, the Spain government unilaterally added another 12,000 to its death toll back in May due to revised data.
All these governments claim that oversights in death tolls are the result of convenience and administrative issues. However, it is clear that some of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, and supposed bastions of democracy, have under-reported the deaths of some of their most vulnerable citizens. In the words of Age UK the Alzheimer’s Society, many of these forgotten victims were airbrushed out of official figures.
Examining “excess deaths” reveals the gap between the official COVID-19 listed by countries such as Britain, France and Spain and reality. Excess deaths describe the number of additional deaths compared to the historic averages over a given time period. Last week in the UK, officials announced that there have been over 65,000 excess deaths in the UK since its outbreak started. However, as of June 29th, the government’s official figure for COVID-19 deaths stood at 43,575. Meanwhile, the difference between excess deaths and official coronavirus deaths in Spain stood at 15,993 as of 28th May. In France, a further 1,989 died between March 2nd and May 10th than the country’s COVID death tolls suggested.
The discrepancy between the number of reported COVID-19 and the rate of excess deaths since the outbreak of the virus can be attributed to a number of factors. Sir Ian Diamond, head of the Office for National Statistics (ONS), describes excess deaths as an important tool for measuring “indirect COVID-19” deaths. These include people who have suffered as a result of partial hospital closures. Markian Hawrluk of Time Magazine also points out that indirect deaths could also cover those with substance abuse issues that have been left without any support network.
Despite these explanations, the under-reporting of COVID-19 infections and deaths is likely to have a key role in the gap between official figures and excess deaths. Analysts from Vox, for instance, claim that under-reporting was primarily responsible for excess deaths being two-thirds higher than reported COVID-19 fatalities between the end of February and the end of March.
Authoritarian governments have fed their people outright lies about the human cost of the pandemic. Democracies that, according to the Human Freedom Index, restrict civil liberties, have used underhand tactics to improve their own image and secure their authority. Meanwhile, some of Europe’s most historic democracies have presented flawed data as fact. States’ reactions to COVID-19 seem to be on a sliding scale. While democratic nations have been more transparent than others, they have still failed to reveal the whole truth to their citizens. This spread of misinformation and lies is a troubling sign for the state of global democracy.