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Coronavirus: A stress test for democracy

April 8, 2020

Governments are facing unprecedented problems in the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas democracies operate on consensus, autocrats react with sweeping measures threatening the rule of law. Who is better prepared for the crisis?

Coronavirus - Demonstration Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

When the Chinese government sealed off Wuhan, a metropolis of some 11 million inhabitants, from the outside world on January 23, the rest of the world looked toward Asia with astonishment. It seemed inconceivable that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19, would also hit the industrialized nations in Europe and North America with such force.

In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to massive restrictions on fundamental rights in cities such as New York, Madrid and Berlin. Exit restrictions, prohibitions and appeals to change habits have shaped life in those cities. Parliaments only meet to a limited extent, and in some countries even heads of government are infected. In some places people look with envy at China, where life is slowly returning, as businesses tentatively reopen. The people of Wuhan are even allowed to travel again.

Read more: First trains leave Wuhan after two-month lockdown lifted

China Wuhan Normalität
In Wuhan, people who are not infected with the coronavirus are now again allowed to leave the cityImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Hpic

Do autocratic states have an advantage over democratic ones when it comes to taking action quickly and dealing with pandemics like the coronavirus? And what will the impact of COVID-19 be on human rights in the eventual post-pandemic era? Austrian democracy researcher Tamara Ehs is focusing on precisely these questions. Despite Beijing's apparent success in stamping out the virus domestically, she says that: "anyone who praises the rigorous curfews in China when looking at the climax of the pandemic fails to recognize that it would not have been necessary (for a state operating) with transparency."

The importance of transparency in combating a pandemic is well illustrated in the case of Austria. Very early on, coronavirus cases occurred among holidaymakers in one the country's many mountainous ski towns. However, the area was not closed. The virus then spread to other parts of Europe thanks to travelers returning home after vacations. Holger Spamann, a professor at Harvard Law School, also calls for "unprecedented transparency" in dealing with the coronavirus. He points out that "unlike human enemies," the virus will not change its strategy just "because we have given up ours."

Immense encroachments on fundamental rights

And yet the rapid spread of the virus also forces democratic states to take emergency measures that were otherwise known from authoritarian systems: curfews, assembly bans and cuts in religious freedom, for example. The Vice President of the EU Commission, Vera Jourova, said on Monday that by her count 20 EU member states have "passed a kind of emergency legislation" to curb the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. She warned of a weakening of democracy given the massive restrictions on fundamental rights.

Read more: EU warns Hungary over coronavirus power grab

Police patrol Paris, France
Like in many European cities, Paris has implemented a lockdown, during which police are patrolling pedestriansImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Ena

Democracy researcher Ehs points out, however, that the severity of an intervention is not per se undemocratic. "There are indications of how to tell whether a measure is justified: do the measures serve the purpose of fighting the virus and did they come about in an orderly process under the rule of law," says Ehs.

By this description, a strict curfew can be implemented within a democratic framework. But if, for example, a minister overshoots the target and wants to go it alone, some lines may be crossed. As an example, she cites the "Easter decree," which Austria's Ministry of Health recently wanted to enact. It would have allowed police officers to check private residences unannounced to verify whether families were gathering for Easter. Such a serious encroachment on privacy can also be decided upon in a democracy, but not without the consent of parliament and only at the behest of the minister of health, says Ehs. The Easter decree was cancelled after massive protests from the opposition and civil society.

The importance of parliamentary control

Political dissent and transparency allow democracies to review and, if necessary, adjust measures in the fight against COVID-19. According to democracy researcher Ehs, however, parliamentary assemblies need to continue to meet unhindered. "Parliaments are platforms where voices are heard and where dissenting opinions crystallize. In a democracy, there are always alternatives. This becomes clear in plenary debates." For that reason, she maintains that parliamentary activity should not be curtailed, as it was in Hungary. When the country approved a controversial emergency law this past week, its parliament gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping powers for an unlimited period of time. As long as the state of emergency persists, no elections may be held and the dissemination of "disturbing information" may be punished with prison sentences.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungary's parliament granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban extensive powersImage: picture-alliance/AP/MTI/Z. Mathe

Hungary has certainly adopted the most restrictive set of measures in the European Union. But other states, such as Spain, have followed suit. They have decided to shut down operations temporarily or to hold virtual parliamentary votes, albeit within the framework of their national constitutions. In Germany, a similar proposal by the President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, was hotly debated. Schäuble proposed a reduced-size "emergency parliament” that could act on the crisis. However, Germany's Constitution only allows for such a measure in a state of national defense. Several members of the opposition have criticized the measure, saying it is not the time to fiddle around with the Constitution.

Overcoming the initial shock

For Austrian researcher Ehs, it is important that civil society remain alert as governments forge ahead with ever more restrictive measures. She was irritated, she says, to note that people in Austria remained passive in the first two weeks of the pandemic. She saw little dissent from the opposition, and the press hardly ever criticized the new measures. This has changed in the last few days: "The media is giving more space to the opposition, and authoritative, scientific voices have their say as well."

Cologne Cathedral is a dead zone during the pandemic
So far, people living in democratic systems like here in front of the Cologne Cathedral have respected social distancing guidelinesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Kaiser

The hour of crisis, according to Ehs, could also become the authoritarian's finest hour. She encourages vigilance to ensure that democracies do not suffer lasting damages. It is not that democracies are going to turn into autocracies overnight. "Rather, I see with concern that citizens are in fear. They want stronger leadership and they willingly accept restrictions on their freedom in exchange for that." And now politicians are seeing just how far they can go until they are met with opposition. "The real question is: what autocratic elements in our democracy are going to rear their head once the fragile balance between freedom and security is upset."

Ehs insists that any measure by a democratic government against the coronavirus should be limited in duration. In Germany, for example, it is still not clear when the restrictions will be lifted. Chancellor Angela Merkel's government also has not yet presented its exit strategy. This week, the country's Ethics Council intervened. It urged politicians to show more transparency in presenting their arguments for a lockdown of the country. The Council also stated that it is not too early to discuss a proper way out of the crisis. It expressed concerns that, with its opaqueness, the government might jeopardize the public's trust.

In the fight against the virus, democracies have one major advantage over autocracies: trust. A trusting populace means that people largely support the government's decisions. In the case of the coronavirus, that trust can mean the difference between hampering or accelerating the spread of the pandemic.

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