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19 January 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:21am

How democracy could become one of the pandemic’s lasting victims

New research suggests the world has become increasingly autocratic since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

By Nicu Calcea

Last year, faced with the global spread of Covid-19, many political leaders enacted emergency powers to help tackle the pandemic. In some cases, however, these powers also expanded their personal reach while silencing their critics and disregarding human rights. In Hungary, a “coronavirus bill” was passed that gave the populist prime minister Viktor Orbán near-limitless power to rule by decree. In Kenya, authorities excessively enforced curfews, leading to widespread police brutality and reported deaths. In South Africa, protests erupted after soldiers entered a man’s home and beat him to death under suspicion that he purchased alcohol, which was illegal under lockdown rules. 

According to analysis published last month by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, two in three countries – including nearly half the world’s democracies – exhibited worrying violations of democratic standards in their response to Covid-19. Sri Lanka, El Salvador, India, Uganda and Nepal were among the countries with the worst pandemic violations of democratic principles. Many Western democracies such as Denmark, Switzerland and Canada recorded few or no notable violations, but there was also significant democratic decline in countries such as the US, Poland and the Czech Republic. 

Separate analysis from other organisations has reached similar conclusions: Freedom House reported in October of last year that democracy has become weaker in 80 out of 192 countries while a December publication from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) showed that 61 per cent of nations “implemented restrictions that were either illegal, disproportionate, indefinite or unnecessary”.

The world has slid further into autocracy
Pandemic backsliding score (where 1 is the maximum pandemic backsliding) and Covid-19 impact on The Global State of Democracy.

By far the most common type of violation of democratic principles observed by researchers is media restriction. Of the 144 countries monitored by the V-Dem Institute, 90 had committed major violations of press freedom, with an additional six countries having committed some violations and another eight having only minor violations recorded. 

In Jordan, for example, the journalist Jamal Haddad was arrested for publishing an article in which he claims that several government officials received a coronavirus vaccine despite denials by official sources. In Zimbabwe, the journalist Mduduzi Mathuthu’s home was raided ahead of protests and, because he was not home, the police arrested his sister instead. 

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[See also: How populist leaders exploit pandemics]

Press freedom organisations have also been sounding the alarm about “fake news” laws adopted across the world. In Russia, for example, a law aimed at stopping the spread of “false information” is used to threaten media outlets with fines of up to €117,000 and pressure journalists into revealing their sources.

In addition to media restrictions, abusive enforcement of emergency measures have been recorded in nearly half of countries (48 per cent), while more than a third (35.4 per cent) have not set a clearly defined time limit for pandemic-related restrictions. 

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Some politicians argue that violations are necessary in order to keep the pandemic under control. And according to Alan Greene, a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School and author of Emergency Powers in a Time of Pandemic, there may be some truth in that claim. “The protection of the right to life” and ensuring that “hospital standards do not deteriorate to the extent that patients are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment” are both strong human rights reasons in favour of pandemic emergency powers, he told the New Statesman.

A wider concern, however, is about the precedent that such emergency powers set. A looming economic crisis and the consequent potential for social unrest could provide an “incentive for an unpopular government to abuse emergency powers”, Greene adds. Not least because the pandemic has arrived at a time of already increasing democratic backsliding. 

In 2019, another V-Dem Institute report found that the number of autocracies had overtaken the number of democracies for the first time since 2001. The paper identified authoritarian shifts in Latin America, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with Hungary becoming the EU’s first authoritarian member. Among the G20 nations, Brazil, India, Turkey and the US have also become increasingly authoritarian. 

 

What long-term impact the pandemic will have on this trend is unclear. “The democratic unpopularity of these emergency powers over time may ensure their temporariness,” Greene says, citing pro-democracy protests that erupted across the world last year from Belarus to Thailand and the US. 

But few of those demonstrations led to a positive outcome for protesters, which, along with the failure of some democratically elected leaders to efficiently respond to the pandemic, may damage faith in the democratic process.

[See also: How protests swept the world]

Legal frameworks do exist to allow countries to manage exceptional situations such as pandemics. Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is one such example, permitting states to derogate from certain rights in a “time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. Yet some ECHR signatories, such as Spain and Italy, declared public emergencies without invoking Article 15.

What will now be key is how fast and how far nations remove emergency powers as the pandemic wanes. “My reason for favouring Article 15 is that these powers are exceptional, and we need to ensure that they stay exceptional,” says Greene. Once this emergency is over “there should be no trace of these powers remaining”.