Why COVID-19 is a threat to democracy

Why COVID-19 is a threat to democracy

Why COVID-19 is a threat to democracy
Maskless supporters of US President Donald Trump gather for a Trump re-election campaign rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, October 30, 2020. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
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The coronavirus has the US, Latin America, India and Europe firmly in its grip. The number of cases in the US has surpassed 9 million, and over 235,000 people have died. 

France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and others have re-imposed measures ranging from restrictions on movement to fully fledged closures, and on Saturday evening British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared a second month-long lockdown for the whole of England. 

China has a handle on the virus and life has more or less returned to normal, but it is easier for an authoritarian regime to contain the spread of the pandemic. Strict enforcement measures go hand in hand with infringements of civil liberties unthinkable in a Western-style liberal democracy. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have also fared reasonably well, but these democracies are underpinned by Confucian values of trust in the authority of elders.

Everything is bigger and brasher in the US, and COVID-19 is no exception. President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden have vastly different approaches. Trump insists that closing down the economy would cause more damage than the virus. Biden emphasizes the loss of life and the apparent lack of consistent policies.

Nothing illustrates their differences better than the dispute over facemasks. Trump sees in them an infringement of personal liberties, and his rallies are densely packed with unmasked supporters. Biden is never without a mask, and urges the administration to follow the science. In the middle is medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who explains why face coverings are important and warns that even if there is a vaccine in 2020, it will be the end of 2021 or even 2022 before America can return to normal. The schism between the candidates is reflected by protesters taking to the streets demanding to be liberated from the shackles of lockdowns.

Things may be different in Europe, but not that different. There were violent demonstrations in Italy as the government tightened restrictions, and protests all through summer in Paris, London, Stuttgart, Berlin and Zurich.

The issue underlying the controversy over COVID-19 measures is about weighing up the relative status of two public goods: Personal freedom and public well-being.

COVID-19 poses a challenge to the civil liberties that are the cornerstone of any democracy. To make matters worse, the economically weak and marginalised groups suffer more than the affluent, which exacerbates the social divide. It is a home truth that democracies work best when the difference between rich and poor is small and the middle class is strong.

Cornelia Meyer

Western democracies rely on civil liberties, none more so than the US, where the right to the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. Many measures to combat the virus infringe on those civil liberties. This is where the quest for freedom may conflict with a government’s duty to protect public safety and public health.

COVID-19 and the measures to fight it have also come at great expense to the global economy, from $11 trillion to $28 trillion depending on the source. Unemployment has soared, with the economically weakest hit the hardest. Low paid, high contact service sector jobs had to go first. Bloomberg estimates that the pandemic has so far cost more than 174 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector worldwide. New lockdowns will raise these numbers. Other frontline staff in supermarkets and health care may not lose their jobs, but they are at heightened risk of infection. This raises the question of how government will take care of the socially weak. 

True, there have been generous support packages, but the question remains how long they can continue. Here, too, there is a political divide; the right argues for fiscal prudence and the left for social cohesion, whatever the cost. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tough negotiations about a further rescue package in the US.

How government measures are accepted by the public essentially boils down to the issue of trust in whether agovernment has the interests of all at heart. In Europe, people were broadly understanding during the first lockdown. They are more weary now, which is made worse by the fact that opposition parties now refuse to stand shoulder to shoulder with governments, as they did in March.

The broader perspective is that COVID-19 poses a challenge to liberal democracies the world over. A 2020 Freedom House report on democracy under lockdown argues that COVID 19 precipitated a crisis resulting in the conditions for democracy and human rights worsening in 80 countries. 

COVID-19 poses a challenge to the civil liberties that are the cornerstone of any democracy. To make matters worse, the economically weak and marginalised groups suffer more than the affluent, which exacerbates the social divide. It is a home truth that democracies work best when the difference between rich and poor is small and the middle class is strong.

If anything, COVID-19 should serve as a rallying cry to take care of the weak, and of democracy, because we are all in this together.

 

Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

 

 

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