Covid-19 pandemic: Democracy’s health at stake

By Ameen Izzadeen
Dictatorship makes democracy advocates sick. Yet, it has come to be accepted as a bitter pill in some societies to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic which is frightening the life out of people worldwide. So much so, the trend has given rise to a debate on whether dictatorship is better than democracy in dealing with the Covid crisis. Even some democratically elected governments have liberally drifted towards authoritarianism, exploiting the helplessness of their fear-stricken or covidphobic people.
Hungary is a case in point. Its Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is not a great admirer of democratic values though he, like Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany, owes his election to democracy.
The Covid pandemic was like manna from Fascist heaven for Orbán, the 56-year-old illiberal nationalist and rightwing populist. Citing as justification the worst health crisis humanity has faced in living memory, he has assumed sweeping emergency powers to rule by decree for an indefinite period.
For all intents and purposes, Hungary is now a dictatorship fathered by the coronavirus. The Hungarian issue has created a dilemma for the EU: Can a dictatorship exist within the EU? According to the EU Treaty, a totalitarian state cannot become a member. But there is also no provision in the treaty to expel or suspend a member if it fails to adhere to EU values such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of minorities. To deal with a rogue member-state, the treaty, however, permits the European Council to impose sanctions or suspend its rights and privileges.
Orbán seems to be least bothered about EU sanctions, since he is riding high on rightwing populist politics fed by bigotry and racism. Critics say the Hungarian Prime Minister’s move has virtually led to the suspension of the constitution’s checks and balances and allowed him to crack down on political dissent and free speech.
A similar crisis erupted in the United States, albeit briefly, when President Donald Trump this week, dismissing the constitutional powers of state governors, boasted that he had “total” authority to decide when the lockdown would be lifted. The remark triggered a volley of attacks from democracy defenders and the media, forcing Trump to make a stunning reversal within 24 hours. However, acting more like a fascist leader than a leader of a responsible global power, Trump on Tuesday announced the suspension of $400 million as annual contributions to the World Health Organisation. The fund cut will cripple the global body’s ability to deal with not only the Covid pandemic but also hosts of other diseases such as malaria, dengue, cholera and ebola and continue with programmes such as polio eradication.
The Hungarian dictatorship and Trump’s theatrics apart, to deviate from democratic norms, demagogues get the courage from a general trait in many societies for people to blindly rally behind a powerful leader or government, especially during times of crisis.
In politics, this trait associated with a general fear or a common enemy is called ‘rallying around the flag’. Unscrupulous leaders hesitate not to turn the collective public fear to their advantage and strengthen their political power base. Even in the United States, arguably the world’s most vibrant democracy, the rallying-around-the-flag concept has been exploited by presidents. A recent example was President George W. Bush. He made use of the fear generated by the 9/11 terror attacks to achieve geopolitical ends and to get reelected.
For this political strategy to work, a sine qua non is the prevalence of a widespread fear of a real or perceived enemy in the public domain. During the Cold War period, it was the Communists. After the Cold War collapsed, it was the so-called Islamic terrorist the US itself was instrumental in birthing. For Indian leaders, it has been Pakistan, and for Pakistani leaders it has been India.
Now that the coronavirus fear is shaking societies to the core, shrewd political leaders appear to be exploiting the people’s over-respect for authority during times of crisis.
Social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham say: “People often feel respect, awe, and admiration toward legitimate authorities, and many cultures have constructed virtues related to good leadership, which is often thought to involve magnanimity, fatherliness, and wisdom…[Societies may also] value virtues related to subordination: respect, duty, and obedience.”
Well, in regimented China, respect, awe and obedience are found in abundance and these traits enabled the authorities to bring the Covid-crisis under some control within three months, adding credence to the claims that authoritarianism — and not democracy — is what is required to overcome an apocalyptic emergency.
But this claim by advocates of authoritarianism is neither sound nor logical. Democracies such as Germany, New Zealand and South Korea are equally being praised for their success in flattening the Covid curve much faster than it happened in China.
These countries prove that even in the worst health case scenario, democracy and human rights can be upheld. No democracy can cite the pandemic as a pretext to undermine human rights, as is happening in several parts of the world – unfortunately also in Sri Lanka where the minority Muslims say their right to be buried after their deaths has been taken away by a government’s regulation. Rights groups have slammed the regulation, which has, without much scientific basis, outlawed burial and permitted only cremation if a Covid patient dies.
In Sri Lanka, the government has, otherwise, earned high praise for its handling of the Covid crisis. It has won much admiration from the people despite the hardship they suffer due to the prolonged lockdown. So much so, even some opposition supporters say they are fortunate to have a strong government now to effectively and decisively deal with the Covid-19 pandemic as opposed to the previous government which drew heavy criticism for its indecisiveness in dealing with urgent issues.
In other words, there is much rallying around the flag for government leaders to either admire it in statesmen-like manner or exploit it to concentrate state power in the executive branch. If they choose the latter path, they may be putting the health of democracy at stake. The government is now at a fork where one path leads to democracy and the other to dictatorship. Which way will the government go? The answer could be found in the manner in which it seeks to resolve the looming constitutional crisis over the general election and the convening of the new parliament. South Korea by holding its general election amid the corona crisis proved the health of democracy is as important as the health of the citizens.

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in COVID-19 pandemic, Political analysis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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