On theoretical grounds, an authoritarian government might either under-react or overreact to an epidemic. In practice, I suspect that overreaction is the bigger threat.
I would not have held this view before my visit to China last year. Traveling around that huge country I experienced almost mind-bogglingly excessive levels of security. Americans are used to security checks before getting on airplanes, but in China you have such checks even before boarding a subway train. We even had to go through security to board a minibus in a remote area with about a dozen other tourists. Why?
Now it appears that the same overreaction is occurring with the Covid-19 pandemic. The press has missed this issue, focusing instead on the fact that China has had great success in reducing the severity of the epidemic. Even those who question the data for earlier in the year admit that new cases have now fallen to a very low level. But the same success is apparent throughout the rest of East Asia, at a far lower cost in terms of inconvenience.
Recently, China put all of Dongbei (Manchuria) into a tight lockdown, after the appearance of just a few cases related to people returning from Russia. That region currently has only 25 active cases, 22 in Jilin:
Some 108 million people in China’s northeast region are being plunged back under lockdown conditions as a new and growing cluster of infections causes a backslide in the nation’s return to normal.
In an abrupt reversal of the re-opening taking place across the nation, cities in Jilin province have cut off trains and buses, shut schools and quarantined tens of thousands of people. The strict measures have dismayed many residents who had thought the worst of the nation’s epidemic was over.
This is how governments react when they don’t have to face voters. The Chinese Communist Party is about to have an important meeting in Beijing, and they worry about being confronted with a major Covid-19 outbreak. Their wish to avoid embarrassment counts for much more than the convenience of a 100 million Chinese citizens.
One might argue that American presidents sometimes put their interests ahead of the public. That’s true, but we have many more checks and balances. Governors also have a big say, and competition between the states has at least some force in “keeping them honest”. No state government wants see a much more severe outbreak than other states. But it’s also true that no state government wants a severe lockdown if nearby states are doing fine without one.
PS. In a sliver of good news, Chinese oil demand has returned almost to normal. Recall that it was the Chinese economic recovery in early 2009 that first sparked the global recovery from the Great Recession. The recent Chinese recovery is a huge boon to US frackers.