The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged governments around the world. It also has challenged conventional wisdom and empirical understandings in the comparative politics and policy of health. Three major questions present themselves: First, some of the countries considered to be most prepared—having the greatest capacity for outbreak response—have failed to respond effectively to the pandemic. How should our understanding of capacity shift in light of COVID-19, and how can we incorporate political capacity into thinking about pandemic preparedness? Second, several of the mechanisms through which democracy has been shown to be beneficial for health have not traveled well to explain the performance of governments in this pandemic. Is there an authoritarian advantage in disease response? Third, after decades in which coercive public health measures have increasingly been considered counterproductive, COVID-19 has inspired widespread embrace of rigid lockdowns, isolation, and quarantine enforced by police. Will these measures prove effective in the long run and reshape public health thinking? This article explores some of these questions with emerging examples, even amid the pandemic, when it is too soon to draw conclusions.

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