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Harry Rakowski: Which has been better for managing COVID-19: Autocracy or democracy?


The vicious war in Ukraine that has dominated headlines for the past eight weeks has once again shown the world the brutality of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian Russian regime. It has also made us more aware of the even greater risk from China’s long-term goal of world domination. Both governments claim that their suppressive ways are superior to democracy. China, as an example, points to how superior their rigid and harsh regional lockdowns have been in controlling the pandemic in their country. In their view, autocracy trumps democracy in the handling of the pandemic. Is there any validity to their claim?

While the pandemic originated in China either from an accidental lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or from natural animal to human transmission, Chinese case rates surprisingly have been extremely low. The original outbreak in China resulted in only about 75,000 reported cases (likely a major underestimate) and was “contained” by a harsh regional lockdown of millions of people. The virus however was spread by travellers from Wuhan to the rest of the world but somehow not widely to other parts of China. 

How have different democracies and autocracies fared?

As the pandemic caused wave after wave of infection, at least half a billion people globally have had documented infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with over six million deaths attributed to it.“Globally, as of 5:46pm CEST, 3 May 2022, there have been 511,965,711 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 6,240,619 deaths, reported to WHO. As of 1 May 2022, a total of 11,532,661,625 vaccine doses have been administered.”

The numbers of infections are certainly much higher than reported everywhere as cases due to the Omicron variant exploded beyond the ability to formally test and track exposure. While the U.S. has reported about 80 million cases, antibody testing that detected prior infection led to estimates by the CDC that the case counts are likely more than double what has been reported, estimating that about 60 percent of the U.S. population has been infected over the course of the pandemic.“Sixty percent of Americans, including 75 percent of children, had been infected with the coronavirus by February, federal health officials reported on Tuesday — another remarkable milestone in a pandemic that continues to confound expectations.” Likely a majority of cases are due to the highly contagious Omicron variants.

How well did democracies do?

Reported cumulative case rates by democratic countries vary widely but are quite high. The U.S. to date has reported a 244/1,000 population, a rate similar to or even lower than most Western European democracies, although more than double the Canadian rate. Sweden had fewer early restrictions and had a disease rate similar to the U.S., while Israel despite very high early vaccination had a very high rate of 439/1,000. Japan and Australia had much lower rates of disease, perhaps because they were island states and more isolationist. 

The high rates of infection in most democratic countries occurred despite relatively high rates of vaccination, recurring lockdowns, mask mandates, and major travel restrictions. 

How well did autocracies do?

Russia, despite an inferior vaccine and higher levels of vaccine hesitancy due to mistrust of government, has reported an infection rate of 123/1,000 people, or about half the U.S. rate but higher than the Canadian rate of 102/1,000. China, remarkably, only reported a rate of less than 1 per 1,000 people a very small fraction of the U.S. rate and by far the lowest in the world.“In China, from 3 January 2020 to 5:46pm CEST, 3 May 2022, there have been 1,127,506 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 15,301 deaths, reported to WHO. As of 26 April 2022, a total of 3,364,169,286 vaccine doses have been administered.” While it is hard to trust the data from either Russia or China as being honest and accurate, the countries had differing approaches to the extremes of their lockdowns. 

The strikingly low numbers of Chinese cases can’t be attributed to vaccination, since the Chinese vaccine was less effective than mRNA vaccines in preventing infection. As well, vulnerable elderly people frequently declined vaccination. Low case levels are also not due to genetic differences in populations either, since Hong Kong rates were higher than those in Canada. 

How do death rates compare?

The discrepancy in cumulative death rates is also very striking. The world average is 195 per 100,000 population. The U.S. rate is 299, Russia 253, Hong Kong 121, Canada 103, and China less than 4! Death rates are loosely linked to population age, rates of vaccination, quality of accessible health care, and to a lesser degree the type and duration of lockdowns. Even accounting for differences in truthful reporting and classification, there was a wide variation in death rates for both democracies and autocracies. 

The major outlier was China with a population of over 1.4 billion people with only about 15,000 total deaths reported, a trivial number.“In China, from 3 January 2020 to 5:46pm CEST, 3 May 2022, there have been 1,127,506 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 15,301 deaths, reported to WHO. As of 26 April 2022, a total of 3,364,169,286 vaccine doses have been administered.” Chinese President Xi has attributed this remarkably low rate to the benefits of their political system and their highly aggressive response to detected pockets of infection. Even if we accept that the Chinese have lied about many facets of the pandemic by a factor of 10,  including case rates and outcomes, there appears to be a marked benefit to how they have suppressed the effects of the pandemic, even if their method was abhorrent. Locking down tens of millions of people in Shanghai and beyond, often depriving them of the essentials of life and ignoring their suffering, is a very high and totally unacceptable price to pay. 

China after minimal disease burden over the past two years is finally having a large and rising second wave due to the two highly contagious Omicron variants. The Chinese are at particularly high risk since they likely have less effective long-term benefits of vaccination and a population with little naturally acquired immunity. Yet surprisingly as counts rise, with nearly 500,000 new cases since March, China reports very few symptomatic cases and only a handful of deaths.China’s Covid death data obscure true impact of Omicron, experts say Again they attribute this to limiting spread very quickly and aggressively. This data is hard to believe given it is so incongruous with outcomes reported everywhere else in the world. Their words cannot be trusted; however, they likely have had better outcomes than most countries. Time will tell how many cities need to have further brutal lockdowns and the true course of their large second wave. 

However, if China can’t contain this wave of Omicron infection, it would further threaten worldwide supply chains and economies. We want them to contain their spike in cases but abhor the cost to freedom. 

We are at a very different stage of the pandemic now. Vaccination is much less effective in preventing infection but remains highly important in preventing hospitalization and death. Vaccination mandates have lost their benefit. There is a great demand to not overly restrict freedoms. China has shown that the most restrictive autocracy has likely had the best outcome but at a tremendous personal cost to freedom. 

The Ukrainians in response to aggressive Russian expansionism have taught us that we often have to fight with all our might and sometimes our lives for what we hold dear. It is our freedom, our democracy, our rule of law. Taken as a whole, democracy is better than bad actor autocracy. 

However, even in democracies such as Canada, we have to be ever vigilant. Governments in an overly paternalistic way may attempt to limit harm by excessively limiting freedoms especially when politically expedient. 

Louis Brandeis, the highly regarded U.S. Supreme Court justice summed up the risks, even in democracies, of allowing our freedoms to be curtailed: 

Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.

Joe Varner: Ukraine fights on—The state of the Russia-Ukraine war two months in


Right now in Europe a legendary war is being fought between a “David and a Goliath” in Ukraine and Russia. David, against many expectations, is doing surprisingly well on the battlefield. Goliath? Not so well. In war, you succeed and win when you obtain your strategic objectives or your war aims. In this case, Russia’s war aim or key strategic objective was to take over the entirety of Ukraine and replace its government with one more friendly, a puppet if you will. Ukraine’s objective in this war has been to hang on, and if possible retake its lost territories in the Donbas and the Crimea. Neither side seems close to achieving their war aims or winning this war in real strategic terms at this point.

We have watched Russia’s military strategy shift several times during this war. In the first phase of the war, Moscow moved quickly to seize Kyiv and replace the Zelensky government with one of its own. In the second phase of the war, we saw a battle of attrition around Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the third phase of the war, Russian forces were defeated in the north above Kyiv and to the northeast, with Russian forces falling back into Belarus and Russia with heavy losses. Now we have entered the fourth stage of the war, which is the battle to secure the Donbas and to take the southern coast to Moldova, and maybe even Moldova itself.

Russian forces are starting to fight according to their own doctrine of using heavy artillery barrages and airstrikes to support ground operations but continue to struggle with low morale. To date, eight weeks in, Russia does not have air superiority. As well, the United Kingdom reports that Russia has been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from failed advances in northeast Ukraine.Depleted Russian units that failed to take Kyiv are merging, says MoD Russia is using penny packets of tactical battalion groups and regiments to attack objectives instead of using overwhelming force. There is a reluctance to employ airpower in support of ground power. There are clear gaps in logistics, sequencing, and planning, although it is improving. Russian commanders, in their drive to the cities, have seen their field hospitals left far behind the front.

One of the great lessons learned coming out of this war will be how well Ukraine controlled the information flow in the age of social media. We know everything that Ukrainians want us to know, but we know less about the cost of the fighting for Ukrainian men, women, and materiel. But thanks to a dominant Ukrainian and NATO narrative, we know almost everything about Russian losses in this conflict. Russia has seen 15,000 dead according to the British Ministry of Defence.Russia so far lost 15,000 troops in Ukraine: UK defense secretary There are at least three times that number of wounded. This means that of Russia’s invading force of 190,000 to 200,000 men, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60,000 are now rendered ineffective.

A specialized blog, Oryx, counts Russian losses and documents them with either photographic or video evidence;Destination Disaster: Russia’s Failure At Hostomel Airpor evidence that strongly suggests that Russia has lost at least 500 main battle tanks and more than 300 armoured fighting vehicles. In a force of more than 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) Russia has probably lost somewhere in the neighbourhood of at least 30 BTGs. Russia has drawn on reservists, its proxy Militia in Ukraine, and mercenaries from Chechnya, Syria, and Libya to replace its losses. In real terms, Russia has enough force for one last offensive in the Donbas before it either re-entrenches, pushes back from the table, or mobilizes for war. Russia has not mobilized its entire force for war yet, but if it’s looking for a victory it may have to do so.

Ukrainian losses have been harder to determine as we enter almost two months of the war. We don’t know the real cost to Ukraine in military terms, in civilian lives, infrastructure (which is by all accounts destroyed in the country in the east and in the south), treasury, lost talent, and cultural, artistic, and historic items that are intrinsic to Ukrainian culture and can never be replaced. Some estimates suggest that even with frozen Russian assets it will be two or three years before Ukraine can rebuild much of the country that is now a wasteland. But some things are lost forever. Reportedly, Russian war crimes continue to be as savage as those we saw during the Second World War on the eastern front.Ukraine initiates more than 9,000 cases over Russia’s military crimes Russia’s war on Ukraine is a genocide—clearly an attempt to wipe out a people, a culture, and a history. 

The United States and NATO were at first slow to respond to Russian aggression, issuing threats of sanctions while at the same time clearly signalling to Russia that they would contribute no boots on the ground and would not impose a no-fly zone. In short, the West offered Ukraine every support short of help and assistance. When the Russian invasion came, NATO countries ramped up both military aid and punishing sanctions targeting the Putin regime, Russia’s security apparatus, and its economy.

Now NATO and Western countries are coming to the conclusion that we either stop Russia in Ukraine using weapons we have in our war stocks or we fight Russia later in our own countries. NATO and other like-states are providing training, repair of equipment, provision of small arms, and even now heavy armour and combat aircraft. These moves have reportedly given Ukraine tank parity with Russia. Additionally, NATO has sent anti-tank, anti-air, and anti-ship missiles to Ukraine which the Ukrainian military has used to great effect. Two months into this bloody war, Russia still does not control the sky over Ukraine. 

The end result on the battlefield is that the Russians maintain enough forces to the north in Belarus and Russia to hold Ukrainian forces in and around Kyiv in place. This denies Ukraine from redeploying forces to aid in the defence of the east and south of the country. According to senior U.S. defence officials, Russia continues to bolster its forces in eastern Ukraine, bringing the total number of its Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) to 85. The Russians continue to isolate and blockade Kharkiv. At the same time, the Kremlin is making a massive effort to take the Donbas in a series of north and south pincer movements and to secure the Ukrainian coast up to and including Odesa and Transnistria.

Now, the war in the Donbas is moving in slow motion and whether that pace will pick up will depend on a number of factors including the weather over the next 10 days. The upcoming warm weather will see favourable conditions for  Russian offensive operations. As the ground dries up and the mud starts to come to an end, we’ll see the Russian army have the ability to go off-road and move to mobile warfare. We will also see the advantage likely shift for a time to Russia with its force concentrations in the east and south free for maneuver warfare while Ukrainian forces have to guard the entire country stretched to the limit and stretched too thin.

Having said that, for successful offensive operations Russia would have to have a three- or five-to-one advantage over the defending Ukrainians. At best they have two-to-one. If the Russian military is not careful their phase four offensive in the Donbas may bleed their existing infantry and armoured forces white. For Russia to even come close to saving face it has to at least seize the Donbas, the coast to Moldova, and maybe Moldova itself. The pressure is on, with the almost-holy day of Victory celebrations in Moscow—taking place on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe May 9th—a week away. 

What does all this mean for the future of the Russo-Ukrainian War? For Russia, victory on the battlefield and in the war itself remains a gamble and is not certain by any stretch. Russia needs a rare quality in war, and one that it has lacked to date: luck. Does Russian President Vladimir Putin get lucky and have his hit teams kill Zelensky and his inner circle so that the Ukrainian government collapses? Does Russia get a battlefield breakthrough and make it to Odesa? Will the Belarusian army cross the frontier and take a distracted Kyiv from the north? Will Vladimir Putin announce a declaration of war with Ukraine on May 9th, Victory Day, and declare mobilization of the country’s reserve army for war? Can Russia take Moldova by surprise through hybrid and/or conventional war and feed the Russian domestic audience some fresh meat for May 9th? Maybe Western resolve collapses and sells out Ukraine at the bargaining table to Russia.

Taking Ukrainian territory and holding it are two different things.

Then there are the worst-case nightmare scenarios: does Russia target and destroy the massive dams on the Dnieper River, flooding large areas of the country with devastating effects? Will Putin resort to increased use of chemical weapons in order to break through on the battlefield or terrorize the civilian population into surrender? Does a desperate Russia use captured Ukrainian nuclear facilities as improvised radiological devices? Could a very desperate Putin use tactical nuclear weapons? None of these can be discounted if Putin’s regime is at stake. 

For Ukraine, it is a matter of protecting its legitimate government and holding as much of its sovereign territory as it can by wearing down and even defanging the Russian war machine. Ukraine’s conduct of this war from the grand strategic level to the small unit actions of Mariupol are going to be studied in Western military academies and beyond for a long time to come. Ukraine has become NATO’s proxy war with Russia, and as long as it continues to get lethal aid from the West and training it is still in the game. The chance of Kyiv getting back territory in the east or south of the country in battle or peace treaty with Russia is low. Over the long haul, the chance that Ukraine retakes it after a bloody insurgency against a sanction-strapped Russia unable to reconstitute its army is medium to high. Taking Ukrainian territory and holding it are two different things. 

For NATO, it has entered its first real proxy war with Russia since Afghanistan in 1979. It is hoping for a replay of that war with Russia emerging with a greatly diminished military machine. Russia’s long-standing strategic goal of splitting the U.S. and NATO from one another or pulling apart the EU has ended in failure, likely for the long haul. While some alliance members went weak, others have stepped up to the plate and an increase in overall NATO defense spending and combat readiness in the short-term is a certainty. NATO states know that they have to rebuild their combat power before Russia rebuilds theirs and before China becomes too big to stop.

Lastly, a bellicose China has gone quiet and shown a cold shoulder to its failed strategic partner Russia. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent dreams of carving up a sphere of influence from New Delhi to the Philippines, Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the Solomon Islands are no longer assured. China has been shocked by the power of the Western sanctions and others against Russia. Beijing has been taken aback by previously neutral counties like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland choosing sides against Russia. Chinese President Xi is reportedly astounded by the triumph of Western military power over Russian military power and the superiority of Western arms over those of Russia’s—and China’s by extension. China can no longer ignore the power of a Taiwan with a “hedgehog” defense bristling with anti-air, anti-ship, and anti-tank missiles or automatically count on the success of a Chinese invasion fleet. The fact that Ukraine, using old weapons, has destroyed eight Russian warships (including the Black Sea flagship the cruiser Moskva), a frigate, and a large amphibious warfare ship, in a ground war, without a navy, has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.