The politics of a pandemic

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – The Covid-19 outbreak across the globe has had an indelible impact on practically all aspects of the economy, our daily lives and general sense of well-being–it has affected how we work, our household finances, how we interact with our friends and family, how we think about our future as individuals and collectively, as well as our politics both home and abroad. 

Some of these changes, for example social distancing and wearing masks when venturing outside our homes, will prove temporary, at least until a vaccine is made available. Eventually, although later rather than sooner, economies will recover, unemployment rates will drop, and those who put off spending during the pandemic will start buying cars, going on vacations, even houses. Yes, a much-needed semblance of ‹normal› will return. Our lives will get better. 

Other changes will be enduring, some of which will undoubtedly serve the common good. Most governments, depending on how much they can afford, will be spending more for improvements in their public health care systems- –rational-minded politicians, and their citizenry, will certainly demand such out of the fear and anticipation of more pandemics to come in the future. 

Yet there are changes, occuring in some countries right now, that are pernicious. One of the more worrisome is politicians using the Covid-19 crisis as a platform to alter their democracies, which is essentially damaging democratic norms and undermining civil rights. In fact, leaders around the world have already passed legislation and emergency decrees expanding their powers and reach during the pandemic. The problem is, very few have included sunset clauses in these new laws and decrees, hence raising the deep concern they won’t be easily relinquished once the pandemic is over. 

Over the past few years, authoritarian leaders, and even those in electoral democracies, had ta k en steps that made their countries more closed and repressive, so much so that international watch groups and think tanks came to a conclusion that we were entering a winter, or recession in democracy. Now, we find that the pandemic is leading us into an even deeper winter. 

There are, of course, nations that have resisted any temptation to tu r n back the clock on democracy. These have tended to be places, with some exceptions, where there is a strong democratic tradition. They have also tended to be places where governments did a good job in managing the crisis. For example, the Asian powers that have emerged best are the democracies of South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. In Western Europe, with Angela Merkel›s Germany being the star performer, we can already see the virus being successfully contained and economies reopening. 

Then there are the failures, such as the United States and Brazi l . In those places where governments were late in containing the spread of the virus, or didn’t provide sufficient medical care for the sick and dying, or have joined the club of nations that have turned a blind eye to science and didn’t bother to impose proper lockdowns and started to reopen too early, there is an eery correlation with illiberal politics and yet more democratic backsliding. 

Of course, there have been excep t ions, where illiberal gover n ments have done a commendable job in managing the crisis. Take the example of Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban, already under fire in the past from the European Union for his undemocratic ways, was granted the power to rule by decree to combat the outbreak of the virus. Orban, who already held sway over his own party, the parliament, courts and had a firm grip on the media, only added to his near complete authority once he was allowed to rule by decree. 

Last month the Hungarian government seemingly came to its senses by ending the extraorinary legal order, but critics point out that the move was nothing more than a political sleight-of hand since all of the sweeping powers Orban granted himself to fight the virus remain intact. In other words, Hungary’s democracy has been so severely weakened that only its pretense remains. 

When it comes to how our politics will finally look once the pandemic is over, it seems illiberal regimes will have become even more undemocratic. Yet, at the same time, most of these regimes will be the same ones that failed in their responses to the crisis, hence making them econonically weaker than their liberal counterparts, and hence more vulnerable to a backlash at the polls or in the streets.