COVID was a boon for autocrats — future pandemics must prioritize democracy

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Though much of the world is still in the throes of the COVID-19 health crisis or struggling to restart their economies following months of lockdowns and depressed demand, some leaders are (rightly) looking ahead to anticipate and prepare for future global crises.

In May, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response recommended measures intended to “make (COVID-19) the last pandemic.” Building on these recommendations, 23 heads of state and the World Health Organization have called for an international pandemic treaty based on “an all-of-government and all-of-society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics.”

The specific measures proposed so far — such as enhanced data surveillance, national action planning, and multilateral cooperation — are technically sound, but fail to reflect a core lesson of this pandemic: COVID-19 is not simply a public health and economic development emergency, but also a democratic governance crisis that has shrunk the political space and exacerbated a decade-long trend toward authoritarianism, which in turn leads to diminished health and livelihood outcomes over time.

While the pandemic’s health and economic impacts strained government resources and heightened popular discontent, the diminishment of democratic norms and institutions under COVID-19 are, in fact, more closely related to the choices made by governments and the international community in responding to the pandemic. According to Varieties of Democracy, pandemic response measures in 95 countries involved moderate or major violations to democratic norms. Some of the ways that policy responses to the pandemic have provided opportunities for illiberal actors to tighten their power, push their policy perspectives and undermine opponents include:

In other forums, the National Democratic Institute has argued that a sustainable pandemic recovery hinges on the ability of societies to build back democratically. In a similar fashion, lessons from the current pandemic indicate that preparedness for future crises should center on measures that are supportive of democratic development. Against the current backdrop of authoritarian ascendence, a democracy-blind emergency response can shift power to the benefit of non-democratic actors. While still adhering to humanitarian principles, national and international disaster risk reduction strategies should be grounded in an understanding of political dynamics and proactive in identifying resilience and response measures that shore up democratic institutions and processes.

Some of the strategies that national governments and international organizations can pursue today to ensure that future responses reinforce, rather than subvert, democratic dynamics include:

  • Design of legal frameworks for emergency measures consistent with international human rights law to ensure they are proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory and have a clear time limit;
  • Development of emergency procedures for economic stimulus packages (including use of loans) that are transparent, nimble and subject to audits and parliamentary oversight;
  • Design of expedited emergency contracting and procurement procedures that include transparency commitments, citizen monitoring mechanisms, complaints mechanisms, and parliamentary oversight;
  • Strengthening emergency-appropriate digital governance, including enhanced data security/protections, in order to allow online, accessible functioning of essential institutions and services;
  • Addressing existing demographic data gaps to include comprehensive information on the whole population and create nimble data collection and feedback loop mechanisms, with special focus on outreach to women and other marginalized groups, to ensure the emergency response accurately reflects public needs and input;
  •  Development of parliamentary adaptive rules of procedure, protocols, select committees and technologies that will allow for a more nimble response in future emergency contexts;
  • Development of crisis communications systems that shore up information integrity and build citizen trust, through channels that are accessible to the whole population, while also committing to freedom of the press and refraining from the ‘fake news laws’ that result in censorship;
  • Increased understanding of and sensitivity to election calendars and dynamics by international assistance organizations in order to avoid providing incumbents with resources or publicity in ways that might tilt the electoral playing field; and
  • Assessment of the impact of future response policies and procedures on existing social fractures to prevent violence, using lessons learned on COVID-19 pandemic policy response impacts on political, armed group, gender and criminalized violence.

With more than two-thirds of the world’s population living under autocratic rule, it is clearer than ever that democracy is not the default setting. The pandemic and its responses have hit democratic politics hard. Unless democratic leaders ensure that preparedness for future emergencies is consistent with democratic principles, they may find themselves in an ever-shrinking club. 

Kristen Sample is director of democratic governance at the National Democratic Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @kristensample

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Dictatorship Emergency management Government State of emergency United Nations response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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