The Global Impact of COVID-19 on Democracy

BY SANSKRITI KATARYA

“We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.” – Fionnuala Ni Aolain (UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights)

As the grip of Covid-19 tightens, governments all across the globe have enacted laws and invoked execute powers to restrict fundamental freedoms as well as civil and human rights. These restrictions can be justified and are necessary in the prevailing situation given that they are constitutional, subject to scrutiny and are proportional to the level of the public health crisis. 

The problem lies in the fact that some political regimes have resorted to undemocratic practices and are using the situation as an opportunity to undercut rights of citizens, stifle dissent, restrict media independence and postpone elections for personal gain. The restrictions are in place but there is no guarantee when or if they will be rescinded. Previously faltering democracies have been the most effected, leaving a massive opening for authoritarianism to take hold.

The first global impact of Covid-19 has been the worldwide delay in elections and the imminent threat it poses to the integrity of electoral processes. Leaders have misused their powers to put off elections long enough to prevent any challenges to their regime. There have been cases of manipulation of voting processes like in Russia and electoral processes have been disrupted through fake announcements as in the case of Niger. There is also an increased risk of corruption as the emergency powers enacted have tossed aside accountability and oversight of procedures.

Some countries have resorted to a highly militarized approach to detain those violating the curfews. There have been reports of excessive police brutality and security forces killing thousands of people in the countries of Philippines, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya. The U.N. has received reports of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips, to enforce social distancing in South Africa. A similar situation prevails in Latin America and it is an excessively distressing trend.

‘Minority rights are suffering all over the world. Discrimination has increasingly undermined the core democratic principle of rights equality.’ (Source: Global Democracy & Covid-19: Upgrading international support). The repressed sections of the society have been the most vulnerable. There have been reports of the Indian government targeting Muslim communities as well as several EU and Arab governments targeting Syrian refugees and introducing discriminatory restrictions.

Technology has been a boon in terms of spreading awareness and safety messages as well as increasing public access to health care. However, the misuse of digital surveillance has also taken a strong hold in many democracies. In South Korea, authorities spread advisory messages which contained personal details of infected patients. Instances like these have led to concerns about breaches of medical privacy and other human rights.

Using the virus as a forefront, many authoritarian leaders have come down hard on any kind of opposition like nightmares. The worrying assault on democracy activists in Hong Kong by the Chinese has been one of the most serious cases. To top it all off, state backed stories of disinformation are being used as instruments by the non-democratic countries to undermine people’s trust in democratic countries.

 In Bolivia, political opponents have been threatened with up to 10 years in prison. Throughout the Balkans as well as in Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela and Bangladesh the parties in power have cracked down upon opposition as well as journalists and media outlets with no health related justifications. Needless to say, jotting down all the instances of countries that have detained their journalists or banned independent news websites would shamelessly exceed the word limit of this article.

The authoritarianism vs. democracy debate has also gained momentum as a consequence of the pandemic and the effectiveness of democracies in dealing with crisis has come into question. It’s not just the critics who are carefully picking examples where democracy has been ineffective in dealing with the pandemic; some influential figures went as far as lauding China for its efficacy in implementing strict measures like the complete lockdown.

The above mentioned responses of the world leaders threaten to accelerate anti-democratic trends and further the decline of democracy. For more transparency, a new online platform called the Global Monitor has been developed by IDEA, with the support of the European Union. It tracks the impact of the pandemic on democracy and human rights around the world and allows the policymakers, analysts, journalists and the public to hold the concerned governments accountable.

In addition to the global monitoring system, an open letter “A Call to Defend Democracy” has been signed by over 500 political and civil leaders, Nobel Laureates, and organisations.  It aims at raising awareness and mobilizing citizens and policymakers to protect democracy – recognizing that this is the most effective system for handling global crises while protecting the rights of all citizens, particularly minorities and marginalized groups (source: International Foundation for Electoral Systems). These have been some of the efforts undertaken by the global community to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on democracy.

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