SHUTDOWNS. Lockdowns. Blanket bans. Closed borders. States of emergency (or calamity, if you’re in the Philippines). Temperature-checking drones and the surrender of mobile data to track citizens. Government directives to industry. Coronavirus has made authoritarians of us all.
Delaying the spread of the virus is of paramount importance. But it is not too early to consider the long-term toll the virus will take on our political systems. Democracy seems particularly vulnerable to this pandemic.
On the simplest level, the pandemic has highlighted how voting systems cannot handle disruption. Local and national elections around the world are being suspended — the logistics are too overbearing and costly in the midst of a crisis, and social distancing impossible during polling. These delays will undoubtedly erode trust in the system as leaders without a credible mandate bungle their way through an unprecedented crisis.
Democracy is particularly vulnerable to the virus.
The dithering of political leaders in democratic states when making difficult decisions has also been criticised, and contrasted with quick action in China. Some of this is due to the slower pace of consensus gathering in democracies, as different departments and numerous political stakeholders must be consulted. Many delays can likely be attributed to leaders weighing the political costs of what they must do. Either way, democracy can be found wanting.
It doesn’t help that democracy has been equated with cacophony over these trying weeks. In devolved systems, provinces and states have been responding differently, often at odds with each other, spurring the virus’s spread. Even democracy’s most diehard supporters have found themselves longing for centralised command and control.
Many democratic leaders have, unfortunately, also exploited Covid-19 as an excuse to behave badly. The US has doubled down on its irrational travel bans. In Singapore and Israel, the governments are invoking the crisis to start tracking people through their mobile phones. In Delhi, a BJP activist has blamed those protesting the citizenship act for spreading the virus. Globally, journalists are facing pressure and threats for criticising government responses to coronavirus, or questioning the accuracy of reported numbers. It has only taken a few weeks for the situation to get dire enough for a group of UN special rapporteurs on human rights to issue a reminder to governments to not use Covid-19 as a cover for repressive, discriminatory or unconstitutional measures.
Such bad behaviour will persist while democracy’s greatest asset — accountability — is undermined. The fast pace of events and the unprecedented nature of this crisis means that typical accountability functions such as the media, courts and civil society organisations are unable to serve as effective checks. In the short term, this will result in dubious decision-making. In the long-term, today’s mistakes will be held up as examples of flagrancy, venality or incompetence by populists and autocrats hell-bent on further undermining democratic systems.
But we cannot lose faith in the system during this crisis. Democracy, when agile and credible, can deliver the efficacy of an authoritarian system while maintaining transparency and accountability. This is the ‘wartime democracy’ being daily extolled in the Western press. In this conception, democracy can rely on a unified public mandate (which authoritarian states rarely have) to make quick decisions, while being kept answerable for its actions (don’t forget, China, which is now recording no or few daily new cases, and is being envied the world over for its top-down coronavirus crackdown, initially sought to suppress the outbreak of the virus, leading to its spread).
The real stress for democracies is not now, during the handling of the crisis. Rather, it will come when the pace of the spread of the virus has been made manageable, and people observe how quickly their systems bounce back. How soon and proactively will governments reevaluate emergency measures, roll back monitoring and tracking provisions once they are no longer needed, and, most importantly, re-engage citizens to understand their priorities and needs.
Moreover, once the virus is controlled, we will recognise that the fallout of the pandemic can only be managed by a robust democratic system. When we seek to rebuild shattered economies — and societies — we will need inclusive representation so that all constituents can be heard and accounted for. We will need social welfare programmes, local governments to engage the public at the grass roots, and civilian policing to tackle the likely rise in petty crime during a recession. Above all, we will need governments — and democratic ones are best suited for this — to hear the global public’s priorities, and improve access to quality health and education so that we’re never so vulnerable again.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2020