A recent report by Freedom House titled “Democracy Under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom” found that the conditions for democracy and human rights have deteriorated further in 80 countries throughout the world. The opening paragraph of the report states, “Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health.”
Before we go any further, let us make one thing clear, a mask mandate does not constitute an infringement on democratic freedoms or an abuse of power.
The democratic system has been on a constant downward trend for the past decade, particularly due to the decline in the scores of developed democracies in the West. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2019 attributed the trend to five factors: 1. an increasing emphasis on elite/expert governance rather than popular participatory democracy, 2. a growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies, 3. the removal of substantive issues of national importance from the political arena to be decided by politicians, experts of supranational bodies behind closed doors, 4. a widening gap between political elites and parties on the one hand and national electorates on the other, and 5. a decline in civil liberties, including media freedom and freedom of speech.
The pandemic has exacerbated these existing issues while also giving governments “justification” to abuse their powers with little accountability.
One example given in the report is from Egypt, already deemed “Not Free,” where an expert noted, “The military regime has used COVID-19 as an opportunity to further repress political activists, rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and doctors, arresting dozens, denying them basic assistance in places of detention, and placing several on terrorist lists.” Similar actions have occurred in other countries.
The pandemic has also hit marginalized communities harder — not only from a health perspective where in places such as Chicago, black people make up 30% of the population but 60% of the city’s Covid-19 deaths, but also being disproportionately impacted by restrictions. The Freedom House report cited the United Kingdom, among others, where “news media have reported that Black people and people of Asian descent are detained at higher rates than white residents under the new police powers.”
New York City saw a similar situation occur. Between March 17th and April 4th, police in Brooklyn arrested 40 people for social-distancing violations — 35 of those arrested were black. No arrests were made in Brooklyn’s whiter neighborhood. The LGBTQ community is another group impacted by the pandemic because they face higher rates of healthcare discrimination and are disproportionately affected by certain economic conditions, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus. The pandemic will certainly widen the wealth gap in the United States in the coming years, creating more setbacks to the strength of democratic institutions in the country.
The media and transparency of information given by the government are two other areas which the pandemic has weakened. The Freedom House report found that 91 of the 192 countries researched experienced some levels of restriction on the news media in response to the coronavirus. That has led to journalists being arrested, harassed, and targeted with violence.
In the United States, Donald Trump has attacked journalists and the media on Twitter regarding their reporting of the coronavirus, as well as pushing conspiracies, all of which erodes public trust in legitimate institutions. Reliable media outlets have been invaluable in finding information about Covid-19 as well as the government’s handling of the virus, some of which would have never been given by the government due to their lack of transparency. The constant manipulation of information from those surrounding the President in order to ignore the real toll that the virus has had on American citizens has removed any accountability from the administration. At one point, the Department of Health and Human Services ordered hospitals to send their Covid-19 data to a new database, bypassing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), causing concern that critical information about the virus would be hidden or manipulated.
Then there was the brief removal from his advisory role and character attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined the information given by Dr. Fauci and other experts because they gave grim outlooks on the trajectory of the virus, all of which the Trump administration did not want to hear. We might not categorize it as “silencing a critic,” but they silenced him in his official government capacity.
The course of action taken to undermine those experts will have a lasting impact beyond the pandemic. Legitimacy in health organizations, such as the CDC, has been weakened because of the government’s interference. A Politico report stated, “In some cases, emails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained the agency’s reports would undermine President Donald Trump’s optimistic messages about the outbreak…”
The strength of democracy around the world will likely continue to fall over the coming years, partly because it was already on a downward trend, and partly because of the reverberating impact of the pandemic.
Another section in the Freedom House report notes, “The crisis of democratic governance, having begun long before the pandemic, is likely to continue after the health crisis recess, as the laws and norms being put in place now will be difficult to reverse. Among the experts surveyed, 64 percent agreed that the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights in their country of focus will be mostly negative over the next three to five years.”
But we’ll end on a high note.
During the pandemic, Portugal has temporarily given all migrants and asylum seekers full citizenship rights, meaning that they have full access to the country’s healthcare system. By November, the Portuguese government said that 246,000 immigrants had been “provisionally regularized in Portugal.”