COVID-19 and Authoritarianism: Two Strategies of Engaging Fear


  • Jonathan Wolff
  • David Elitzer
  • Anna Petherick
  • Maya Tudor
  • Katie Tyner



This paper considers ways in which rulers can respond to, generate, or exploit fear of COVID-19 infection for various ends, and in particular distinguishes between ‘fear-invoking’ and ‘fear-minimising’ strategies. It examines historical precedent for executive overreach in crises and then moves on to look in more detail at some specific areas where fear is being mobilised or generated: in ways that lead to the suspension of civil liberties; that foster discrimination against minorities; and that boost the personality cult of leaders and limit criticism or competition. Finally, in the Appendix, we present empirical work, based on the results of an original survey in Brazil, that provides support for the conjectures in the previous sections. While it is too early to tell what the longer-term outcomes of the changes we note will be, our purpose here is simply to identify some warning signs that threaten the key institutions and values of democracy.