This paper provides a quantitative examination of the link between political institutions and deaths during the first 100 days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We demonstrate that countries with more democratic political institutions experienced deaths on a larger per capita scale and sooner than less democratic countries. The result is robust to the inclusion of many relevant controls, a battery of estimation techniques, and to estimation with instruments for the institutional measures that we consider. Additionally, we examine the extent to which COVID-19 deaths were impacted heterogeneously by policy responses across types of political institutions. Policy responses in democracies were less effective in reducing deaths in the early stages of the crisis. The results imply that democratic political institutions may have a disadvantage in responding quickly to pandemics.