When the coronavirus was declared a pandemic last March, countries had to grapple with fraught decisions about how to best promote public health and whether to take steps to close down economic activity. Some succeeded better than others at getting the virus under control. A year later, some countries have virtually eradicated the virus, while others are looking at higher levels than ever.

For political economists, those responses provide a real-time experiment to examine longstanding questions about what kind of government best deals with disaster. “There has been a lot of debate and discussion about the types of political or social institutions that matter when it comes to confronting massive problems like this pandemic,” says Darden Professor Gaurav Chiplunkar, “and whether a country’s response varies depending on the institutions within it.”

In a new paper, “Political Institutions and Policy Reponses During a Crisis,” co-written with Sabyasachi Das at Ashoka University, Chiplunkar finds that the answer to that question is yes, the response is connected to the type of government and its institutions. The paper looks at a variety of factors, including the strength of a country’s democracy, freedom of its press and trust in its government, to investigate how those factors affect a country’s COVID-19 response.

The researchers found that when it comes to a crisis, not all institutions are created equal.

Closure and Health Policies

To judge countries’ responses, Chiplunkar and Das used a report by Oxford University that divided governments’ responses into categories: closure policies, such as shutting down schools and banning travel, or health policies, such as mandating masks or educating citizens about hand-washing and contact tracing. For each category, the report created an index to measure a country’s response, which the researchers were then able to use to compare countries’ institutions.

First, they looked at the difference in response between autocratic and democratic countries. They found that autocratic countries are more likely to have stringent policies in general: Even before the pandemic hit, autocracies rated some 25–30 percent higher on both health and containment indices as compared to democracies. And while both democracies and autocracies were swift to respond to the pandemic, the latter not only catch up on containment, but in fact surpass autocracies in health policies within a week or two of the first reported case. Democracies eventually rate about 35 percent higher on health policies, implying that democratic governments are better able to implement new policies in response to a crisis.

Effects of Leaders’ Tenures and Victories

Chiplunkar and Das further drilled down to examine other factors in a democracy that might affect the strength of the response, including whether a country has a presidential or parliamentary system, the size of a leader’s victory in the most recent election and how much time in office that leader had left. They found that all else being equal, both presidential and parliamentary systems performed similarly. But notably, leaders who won by larger margins or had more time left in office mounted more vigorous responses, especially with health policies such as contract tracing and awareness campaigns.

Chiplunkar speculates that having won a position in greater numbers made leaders feel more empowered, while having more time in office would give a feeling of greater responsibility, as they would more directly bear the consequences of the recovery.

“Those leaders may take steps more seriously because they have a greater incentive to do so,” he explains. Even in those cases, however, only health policies were stronger; those policies, Chiplunkar says, may be easier to implement than closures that shut down the economy.

Impact of a Free Press and Trust in the Government

The researchers next looked at the effects of a free press on COVID-19 response. Using measures on press freedom created by Reporters Without Borders, they found that countries in the upper half (above-median) of media freedom responded more aggressively on health policies following the onset of the pandemic. “Media plays a big role in collecting and disseminating information, which is important for health policies,” Chiplunkar says. The press might, for example, report where hot spots and outbreaks are occurring, pressuring the government to improve its response. While a more open press did not immediately affect the nature of response in containment policies, the researchers found that countries with a more free press (above-median measure of press freedom) do have relatively larger increase in containment policies after four to six weeks after the first COVID-19 case.

The most significant factor that Chiplunkar and Das found affecting containment policies was trust in government and its leader. Countries in which citizens reported more trust had stricter containment policies and better health policies after the first cases of the virus hit. Those in which people supported their leader’s independence to pursue their own policies also saw  stricter containment policies, implying that in both cases citizens were more likely to follow their government’s lead and accept the imposition of government closures.

Institutions of Democracy

Taken as a whole, Chiplunkar says, the findings show that the strength of democratic institutions dramatically affect a country’s ability to respond to a crisis. “It turns out institutions matter a lot, especially in a pandemic situation,” Chiplunkar says. “Therefore, it’s important to think seriously about how these institutions are developed.” He was particularly surprised, he says, at how much trust in government institutions seemed to matter in creating an aggressive response. “That’s important because in a lot of places around the world, people are losing trust in the institutions of democracy,” Chiplunkar says, “as we’ve seen in U.S. elections.” Any efforts that could help restore that trust in democracy and media, he says, could help both the U.S. and other countries better prepare themselves for the next crisis and ensure they take the most appropriate responses when it occurs.

Gaurav Chiplunkar co-authored “Political Institutions and Policy Responses During a Crisis” with Sabyasachi Das of Ashoka University.

About the Expert

Gaurav Chiplunkar

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Assistant Professor Gaurav Chiplunkar is in the Global Economies and Markets area. His research interests are at the intersection of development and labor economics and examines on the one hand, how large industrial policies affect firm behavior and on the other, how frictions in the labor market constrain job search, recruitment and hiring practices by workers and firms. He also studies how policy reforms and new technologies can help mitigate these frictions. 

Ph.D. in Economics, Yale.