Compromising Democracy in the Time of Covid-19

Compromising Democracy in the Time of Covid-19
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As Covid-19 surges ahead leaving in its path a collapsing world order, governments across the globe are struggling to keep afloat despite the health crisis and economic devastation. The problems that have risen from Covid 19 aren’t new ones but old wounds that have deepened pre-existing fault lines in our political, social and economic systems.

It has been a challenge for most countries to mitigate the spread of the virus and ensure that the health infrastructure does not crumble under the burden of the pandemic. Leaders also have to deal with the anarchist fall out of systems that have gone array. In such a scenario, given the magnitude of the socio-economic impact, there is also another picture that is fast emerging -The erosion of democratic systems and multilateralism and the emergence of authoritarian, populist strongmen.

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Instead of sharing information and working in tandem with each other, countries have turned inward in the mad scramble for some semblance of order amidst the chaos, thanks to this black swan event. From Brazil to the US, Mexico,Hungary, India, Russia, Philippines and others, we see democratic systems being tested and slowly transitioning into totalitarian structures of governance. What is disconcerting is the inability of the international community to come together and strategise an interconnected way of combating the virus. We see them instead compete for medicines, medical supplies and indulge in blame games aimed at pinning the onus on rival nations or communities to further propagate divisionism and hate agendas. The United Nations which ought to be playing the central role in handling of the pandemic, has been sadly sidelined and rendered powerless in the tug of war between China and the U.S.

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From the African American protests that’s sweeping the US against systemic brutality; to Brazil’s decision to end social distancing and re open for business at the behest of  Bolsnaro’s, “ I am the constitution,” authoritarian  quip; and the systemic victimisation and incarceration of Muslims, dissenting voices and critics of the Indian government, the right wing governments in these countries are undermining the very idea of democracy. The pandemic has made it very easy for them to redefine executive powers and transform illiberal democracies into authoritarian regimes.

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With the soaring number of cases overwhelming healthcare systems in many countries, no expert has a fool proof idea on how to handle the pandemic effectively. While draconian laws during lockdown may have been incumbent on both democracies and dictatorships to curtail civil liberties and curb the virus, the danger exists that such temporary measures could become permanent even during the post Covid times. In the article, “For Autocrat, and others, Corona virus is a chance to Grab even more power” Selam Gebrekidan opines that some governments are using the pandemic crisis  to seize new executive powers  that has little to do with the disease. And that such powers will continue to hold long after the health crisis gets over.

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Blatant violation of democratic due process has been evidenced by nations in various forms. Massive surveillance of citizens in the guise of tracking Covid Positive patients have been introduced with little resistance in countries like Israel, South Korea Singapore, India and others. This can easily be continued post the pandemic to place its citizens under constant vigil. Governments have used executive powers as an excuse to crush dissent as in the case of the arrest of  a pregnant university student, Safoora Zargar  and others in India under the draconian anti terrorism law, merely for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act.  Censure of news media and flagrant disregard of the constitution as in the case of governments of Brazil and Thailand. Or the draconian measures by the police and racial profiling against African American minorities as evidenced in the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. Countries like Chile and China and the State of Jammu and Kashmir of India, have the military on the streets to enforce the lockdown forcibly.

A perfect democratic socialist system as envisioned by George Orwell could very well be a chimera. Covid 19 has been an eye opener to how easily democracies can succumb under its own weight given the lack of a functioning civil society. It can easily facilitate democratic erosion in faltering democracies, consolidate power in autocracies or ease way for democratic growth in a stronger more robust democracies. This will be our litmus test. It is up to the people at the end of the day to ensure that they stand vigil in holding leaders accountable and upholding the ethos of democracy, in the not so distant post pandemic times.

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