The Ill Health of Authoritarianism | Sarah Stook

In December, most of the world just thought of the disease spreading through Wuhan, China, was a local thing. Chinese officials decided to keep it looking that way. A Times article from early March revealed that officials headed to the labs and had the scientist not only suppress the news, but actively stop testing it and destroy samples.

Fast forward three months, and nearly every continent has seen the virus, known know as either the coronavirus or COVID-19, spread through it. Italy has borne the brunt of it outside of China, but cases have spread from the United States to Australia. Nations around the world have set strict rules, basically locking citizens in their homes and banning gatherings in order to restrict the spread of the virus.

We’ve seen Eurovision, Glastonbury and local elections cancelled in the UK. St Patrick’s Day was an odd job gathering of pub goers as opposed to big city parades. Events around the world, like marathons and concerts, have been pushed back in hopes that the virus will have gone. It’s going to be months before we’ll see any sense of normalcy.

Though most of the free world has seen cases, there is nothing quite like the authoritarian regimes. Their reactions have been rather different to ours. Shrouded in mystery, we rely on the video footage and news articles from brave insiders. Officials put on a brave face at conferences, denying just how bad things are.

North Korea shot one victim for getting out of isolation and into a public sauna. The guy was being stupid, sure, but he didn’t deserve ultimate North Korean ‘justice.’ Nothing more has been reported from the world’s most isolated country, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they announced that their doctors had treated it or that there were no more cases.

Russia also hasn’t reported any cases, but the same story applies.

China and Iran are the most interesting cases though.

China lives under a shroud of censorship in its life. Many websites we use everyday are either banned or heavily censored. Showing a picture of the infamous ‘Tank Man’ from Tiananmen Square would cause confusion- who is this man? They know not of history, either the world’s or their own. It’s not quite North Korea, and the Chinese are far from stupid, but the officials only like one picture- their own.

This is what helped exacerbate things. Several doctors who attempted to warn the country, and the world, of the virus, were either shut up or left to die after getting it.  Four so far have tragically lost their lives, at least that they know of. They died not only of corona, but of ignorance. Officials ignored the chances to protect healthcare workers and other victims by taking it seriously. Where they could have listened to doctors and provided resources, they shut them down. It was only through intelligent computer-minded people that some of it got through to the outside world.

Wuhan soon wasn’t the only place that Corona had gripped. It moved around China and outside of its borders.

Iran is another one severely hit. Several of its most senior government officials, including some vice-presidents, have been hit. One of those, the deputy minister for health, was seen coughing and looking very ill at a press conference only the day before.

It’s another country where figures are being suppressed. Images on Twitter have shown hospitals being overrun, people on the streets and doctors with no way of helping. One particularly alarming video showed a woman refused entry to the hospital as she wasn’t properly covered. The latest figures have a death toll of 853, but many inside the country say that is simply not true. As we’ve seen, it’s not an indiscriminate disease.

Many Iranians will be looking to the Ayatollah Khamenei for support, as would most citizens do to their leader. Unfortunately, the Ayatollah seems to be following the policy of silence. Earlier in the month, the Supreme Leader downplayed the virus by saying it ‘wasn’t a big deal,’ even though 77 people had tragically died at that point. He also advocated for prayer, the well known vaccine. As the Ayatollah is an older man, it’s not a surprise that’s he’s probably in quarantine, but he’s also the leader. Many elderly people in Iran are dying, yet he remains a mystery. He is not an open leader, as dictators tend not to be, so he is once again showing how authoritarianism is failing.

A fair few people have blamed the USA and their sanctions for the Iranian crisis. Firstly, their sanctions did not cover things like medical supplies, which are essential to beating the virus. Secondly, even as someone who isn’t a fan of sanctions, it’s fair to say that the infrastructure and government are definitely to blame. Trump hasn’t handled it beautifully, but he’s far from the dictatorship that many make him out to be.

What makes it more disturbing is knowing that this is what life would be like without a pandemic. We’ve seen it with SARS. We could see it with regular illness. Authoritarianism fails everyone in its grasp, especially the most vulnerable. China and Iran have some of the most educated people in the world. Women in STEM are very prominent at Iranian universities. These are the people who could help in this situation.

Yet, the authoritarians took the classic route of censorship.  Censorship kills in several ways. Firstly, it stops the initial information getting out, as we saw when they shut down the labs. Secondly, it stops the flow of information needed between important people. Thirdly, it downplays the problem. If citizens aren’t aware of how bad it is, they won’t take those extra precautions. Whilst Western media is definitely being too panicky, at least people are aware that it is a huge problem. Hiding the truth to save face is essential to a dictatorship, as it keeps the masses from rioting

Preventing the masses from seeking healthcare in order to protect the regime is something incredibly evil. The elite will get their medicine. The masses will fall to illness. Authoritarianism is a disease, with symptoms including censorship, lack of statistics and preventable deaths.

We can curse Iran and China all we want, but it’s not the people who are to blame. Asians are being attacked on the streets for something that isn’t their fault. Coronavirus may be the killer, but the dictators are sticking plasters on a bullet wound.

When an authoritarian regime coughs, the whole world catches a cold. We can only hope that the citizens have their handkerchiefs.


Photo by Jonathan van Smit on Flickr.

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