The advent of the 2020 virus has far wider consequences for society

By Chiara Castro: Politics Columnist

Let’s face it, 2020 has had a rough start right from its first days. Australian bushfires, where millions of animals got killed, opened the deadly dance. Following, the Coronavirus pandemic shook the all globe.

Losses from every corner around the world are continuing to mark the pace of this ghastly march, on daily basis. For not talking about the swarms of locusts that have been hitting Kenya and Ethiopia since January, destroying fields and east Africa’s economy stability. Nor about new cases of bubonic plague which have been registered at the beginning of July in Mongolia. And now, democracy appears to be the last victim claimed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recession of democratic values is nothing new. As the last research conducted by Freedom House shows, more countries have lost, rather than acquired, civil and political rights each year during the last decade. As every crisis, also the current health emergency is accelerating this worrying trend. From deepening existing inequalities and consolidating authoritarian powers to imposing restriction on civil liberties and undermining citizens’ privacy, COVID-19 has had an overall negative impact on democracies. As a consequence, across the globe fundamental civil rights have been deeply affected on different levels.

Under this light, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) expressed its concerns in an open letter titled “A Call to Defend Democracy”. The letter, which was published on its website on the last 25th of June, has been supported by 73 pro-democracy institutions as well as political and civil leaders from all over the world. Its aim is raising awareness about the issue as well as mobilising citizens and policymakers to react against it. If it was not a surprise that authoritarian regimes took advantage of the health crisis for tightening their political grip, “ even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance without regard to legal constraints, parliamentary oversight, or time-frames for the restoration of constitutional order” the letter said.

Media: Nick Bondarev

Yes, the faltering of democracy is coming under different shapes. In some countries, the pandemic has been taken as the perfect opportunity for the introduction of new authoritarian laws. In Israel, a new law, so-called “Framework law”, came into force on the 7th of July. It allows the government to bypass the parliament, in guise of facilitating the fight against Coronavirus. A similar process was brought into effect in Romania. In the late of March, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte use COVID-19 as pretext to consolidate his authority through a bill that gives him expanded emergency powers, a military lockdown and, from the 3d of July, a new anti-terror law which can be defined as an outrage for human rights. Following this wave, the Hungarian Coronavirus Act allows the prime minister Victor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. This reinforces his authoritarian campaign, using the pandemic as a further occasion for attacking free press and political dissidents. The reason why the European Union did not intervene after this perceived violation of fundamental democratic rights is not clear, yet. In the meantime, echoing its neighbour, Serbia declared an open-ended state of emergency that enforces strict lockdown measures as well as forbids parliament to object at.

Hungary is not the only nation that used COVID-19 crisis at the expenses of freedom of speech, ineluctable liberty for any democratic government. According to the Global Monitor of Covid-19’s Impact on Democracy and Human Rights, put together by the International IDEA, different countries in Europe have developed worrying democratic downturns as a consequence of the current health crisis. Among these, in Ukraine journalists are being threatened or attacked. While the more authoritarian Belarusian regime is keeping arrest its dissidents and opposition supporters.

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Moving in Southeast Asia, we can see how the pre-existence illiberal trend has been deepened by the pandemic. In Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and even in what was considered the best example of democracy of the region, Indonesia, authorities have all detained critics, health workers, journalists and opposition members during these last rough months. Also in Azerbaijan and Bangladesh, governments are silencing critics. And how not to mention the national security law introduced in Hong Kong by the Chinese government. Even though it is not strictly linked to the Coronavirus emergency, it has to be seen as another piece of the authoritarian mosaic that is taking shape throughout the globe.

Another collateral effect due to COVID-19 is the postponement of elections. The base upon a democratic countries should be built. Polls represent an important tool for tempering political and socio-economics internal conflicts, peacefully. With the logistic obstacle that the current pandemic causes, many countries across the world have decided to reschedule the big day. What could provoke a delay in nations already shaking? In Latin-American turbulent democracies of Bolivia, Chile and Dominican Republic, the news went along with a wave of protests. In Venezuela, the risk is that the next electoral process would never meet international standard for honest and fair elections. On the other side of the world, in the Balkan peninsula, the situation is not at the best either. In Serbia and North Macedonia, the setback highlighted stronger and loudly the mutual distrust between citizens and governments. Also the path of carrying on with the course of action could lead to a big damage for the democratic health of the country. Poland and Zambia both saw their political campaign’s activities affected and restricted due to the pandemic. While, leaders of US, Brazil and India have managed to politicise the COVID-19 situation at their advantage, weakening the opposition.

Last but not least, privacy matters. Concerns regarding privacy’s protection have arisen everywhere in the world. In order to defeat the disease, track and trace has become the new mantra to follow. Everyone is naturally worried of how the terrain between necessity and abuse is, actually, subtle and fragile. Authoritarian regimes, like China, have not lost the chance for refining their control over the population. Also South Korea adopted a robust digital surveillance. In European backsliding democracies of Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine and Montenegro, the use of personal data without consent is a huge object of concern. This implemented, also, discriminatory treatments, particularly against the Roma community. Whilst the role of the Israel Security Agency’s (Shin Beth) within the phone tracking programme does not reassure either, sparking disagreements among the public opinion. But also here, in UK, we detect that something is afoot. Plans for the long term future of the NHS App, even though still hypothetic, could spring into a new form of social control, without precedents. Governments would be legitimate to spy on citizens, all in the name of safety. Without transparent legislation, it would be like jumping inside an obscure zone without a rope. The impact could deeply affect the concept of democracy as we know. At that point, it would be too late for coming back.

From a health pandemic, an authoritarian virus is now steamrolling throughout nations. As the spread of Coronavirus, this is scaring, nasty and can easily sweep across the world at a fast pace. These kinds of disease do not know borders. In a globalised world where globalised economies operate, a global pandemic will shuffle the global geopolitical deck built after World War II. Look at China, for example. From potential enemy of the EU, the health crisis turned Xi Jinping into the best friend of some European leaders. And, who is going to win the vaccine race? Alliances among Western countries are cracking. A fertile ground for reinforcing negative democratic tendencies.

A global pandemic is an historical moment of changes. It is affecting every person, every relationship.

It is moulding a new normal, a different world. Unlikely the implications that COVID-19 has on countries’ healthcare and economy, mainstream media seems to not pay enough attention to its political backlash. The world we all know is falling apart. The extent of damage that Coronavirus emergency will have over democracy will be soon revealed. Depending how economies and societies will be affected as well as how democracies and autocracies will manage the upcoming crisis, that will shape our future. It is not the time to let the guard down.