As the world battles its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, a deeper, lasting challenge looms — a crisis of governance.
As The Economist has documented, many governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to assert greater centralized authority. In some cases, citizens have accepted the trade-off as a temporary necessity. But they did not give leaders carte blanche and the political and social costs have become more apparent over time.
Through its offices globally, the National Democratic Institute has observed several of these costs first-hand. Authoritarian-minded leaders have curbed essential checks and balances: sidelining legislatures, suppressing free speech, association and independent media and postponing elections indefinitely.
Traditionally marginalized populations — women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities and LGBTI communities among others — have been subject to scapegoating and increased violence.
Opportunities for corruption have expanded, including procurement fraud, price gouging, bribery for COVID-19 tests and treatment and counterfeit medicines.
And disinformation, proving as infectious as the virus, has continued to undermine public willingness to follow health guidance, diminishing civic trust.
The World Bank has further documented how the pandemic has exacerbated income disparities and reversed a generation of global development gains around the world. One must assume once the crisis passes, a tidal wave of social frustration and potential unrest may loom. That will require proactive consideration of how to channel and mitigate that anger.
While many of these conditions predate the crisis, they have been exacerbated by the pandemic and stand in the way of a sustainable recovery. And while it is understandable that economic development and public health are taking center stage, these programs are likely to fall short unless good governance principles are embedded in them.
Programs must ensure, for instance, that assistance does not flow solely to the central government and to newly-strengthened executives. As the national institution most closely connected to citizens, independent legislatures are critical to verify that national policies equitably reflect public needs.
Likewise, local governments and citizen groups should be empowered to share responsibility with the central government for service delivery and policy-making.
Any recovery plan also must address systemic issues that have further marginalized and disenfranchised some communities. Those traditionally marginalized, including the young and women, often are the most affected by the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, as they experience major disruptions to their education, safety and employment prospects. Every effort should be made to ensure their inclusion in pandemic relief and recovery efforts, including vaccine distribution and representation in decisions about recovery policies and programs.
Ensuring that vaccines and other recovery resources reach vulnerable communities likewise depends on transparency and accountability measures. That means supporting programs that promote citizen monitoring, open government standards, whistleblower protections and legislative oversight of the executive.
Combating disinformation and fostering civic trust, a key ingredient of any pandemic response, will require transparent communications strategies and regular citizen engagement.
And international assistance providers must avoid exacerbating pandemic-induced insecurities or conflict dynamics. Vaccine distribution should be structured to support social cohesion and avoid inflaming already existing ethnic, religious and sectarian conflict dynamics.
As the United States and others mobilize to provide pandemic recovery assistance, the goal should be to not only reverse the trend of centralized government and authoritarian opportunism of the past year, but improve upon pre-COVID levels of transparent, accountable, participatory and inclusive political processes. Failure to do so risks facilitating corruption, exacerbating social unrest and undermining the effectiveness of any pandemic relief efforts.
There are no quick fixes to the host of structural challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. But if the pandemic has proved anything, it is that we are all indeed “caught in an inescapable web of mutuality,” as Dr. King wrote. Our ability to end the pandemic and begin a global recovery will depend on what happens not only in the United States, but all around the world.
As the international community ramps up aid for COVID recovery efforts, therefore, we have an opportunity to lay the foundation for both short-term success and long-term sustainable development. Our ability to ensure that governments and communities alike are better prepared to prevent the next crisis will depend on investing in transparent, accountable and inclusive political processes around the world now: building back democratically.
Only then may we also safely and finally put the legacy of a devastating pandemic behind us.
Derek Mitchell is president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Burma.