Can Democracy Survive the Coronavirus?
The COVID-19 global pandemic has prompted amajor question about leadership in a time of crisis: how to balance the
importance of public health with the respecting of individual liberty? The
virus respects no borders. It cares little for how nations are run, whether
through democratic governance or authoritarianism. But democratic governments
have already used the virus to crack down on freedoms, while those regimes that
were authoritarian to begin with have used the pandemic to grab even more
power. Meanwhile in countries like the United States, the notion of freedom is
being used to undermine public health. But freedom and public health are not
Hungary's right-wing government offers perhaps
the most striking example of how a crisis of public health has been used to
further authoritarianism. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has cited the virus
spread to cancel all elections and remain in power indefinitely. He has invoked
broad powers to limit air travel and individual movements. But there is no end
date to the restrictions, nor any parliamentary review of his actions. For as
long as Orban's emergency orders are in place, he has claimed the right to rule
by decree. Likening the virus to the sort of "foreign influence" he has railed
against, Orban said, "We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called
migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical
connection between the two, as both spread with movement."
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic has pushed
for similarly extreme measures and relied on heavily armed police patrols to
enforce his edicts. He too has undermined parliamentary oversight of his
actions and assumed the right to rule by decree.
A spokesperson for the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe explained the framework for what the pandemic
requires from governments: "A state of emergency-wherever it is declared and
for whatever reason-must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place
for as long as absolutely necessary." But history is replete with examples of
governments seizing power during moments of crisis and refusing to voluntarily
In India, the world's largest democracy and
second most populous country, the authoritarian Hindu fundamentalist government
of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed the strictest lockdown in the
world. Announced with almost no notice, Modi upended life for more than a
billion people with a mandatory 21-day lockdown to slow the spread of the
coronavirus. With hundreds of millions of people surviving on a hand-to-mouth
existence, many homeless or displaced, such a draconian order did more harm
than good. Tens of thousands gathered into crowded buses, trains, and streets
desperate to return to their villages as their source of incomes were cut off.
Nearly two dozen people have died en route from Indian cities, including an
11-year-old who simply starved to death.
China, a nation whose authoritarian streak was
already under international scrutiny, expanded its surveillance power under
cover of the virus. Public transportation will now deploy facial recognition
and temperature scanning technology to keep tabs on citizens with no oversight
on how the data will be used, and no end date on data gathering.
Israel has taken it a step further, openly
surveilling all residents using their cell phone data to track those who have
tested positive for COVID-19 and determining who has come into contact with
them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waived parliamentary oversight on using
such "anti-terrorism" measures to tackle the pandemic.
In the United States, the emergence of COVID-19
initially provoked almost no actions from the government. President Donald
Trump was briefed about the devastating potential of the disease to take half a
million lives in January, but he was more deeply concerned about the health of
the economy than that of American lives and repeatedly claimed, "No one saw
this coming." Trump watched the stock market gains under his presidency unravel
and prematurely urged a return to normalcy, hoping to see "packed churches" by
Easter and worrying that the "cure" for the virus would be "worse than the
problem itself." An administration that has based its power on undermining
science and courting right-wing religious fundamentalists, gun-owners, and
self-avowed libertarians has used the notion of "individual freedoms" to
justify its dangerous inaction.
Numerous U.S. officials are carving out
exemptions for religious gatherings in spite of the clear need for strict
quarantining to stop the spread of the disease. Jerry Falwell Jr.'s Liberty
University refused to respect quarantine recommendations and reopened after Spring
Break, endangering students. The pastor of a megachurch in Florida also flouted
public health warnings and assembled his congregation.
Perhaps the best symbol of "libertarian" idiocy
is Ammon Bundy, the leader of the failed occupation of the Malheur National
Wildlife Refuge in Oregon who is leading a "liberty rebellion" in Idaho-a state
that has more cases of the virus per capita than California. Bundy has even
wished the illness upon himself, saying, "I want the virus now." But he ought
to consider the case of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who also spent weeks
refusing to take action against the virus and claimed he was seeking "herd
immunity" for a large percentage of the population. Johnson has now contracted
the virus and sought intensive care at a hospital. Like others, he has realized
an aversion to scientific facts doesn't make you immune to the virus.
A crisis such as the one we are facing demands
decisive action tempered with an abundance of caution about infringements of
people's rights. Nations such as New Zealand are showing it can be done. Prime
Minister Jacinda Ardern has acted decisively but emphasized government
transparency in decision-making over a virus-lockdown. She has issued clear
messages about the government's strategy and goals for eliminating the virus' spread and made herself available to the instruments of accountability in a
democracy-namely the press. Her approach stands in contrast to the United
States where President Trump has upped the ferocity of his attacks on
South Korea also took quick action to tackle the
virus after it first exploded into view. President Moon Jae-in ordered
widespread testing, imposed emergency measures on the epicenter of the
outbreak, and isolated and treated patients swiftly. Communicating clearly and
often with the public, the government effectively turned around a public health
crisis without resorting to heavy-handed or autocratic measures. Unlike the
United States and UK, President Moon relied on sound scientific advice and
wasted no time in ordering tests and protective equipment.
New Zealand and South Korea offer models for how
governments can navigate unprecedented crises such as this. The coronavirus is
not just a threat to our personal and collective health; it is a threat to our
democratic institutions as well. We need to protect lives and democracies.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and
executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that
airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a
project of the Independent Media Institute.