Democracy in times of COVID-19: a time for introspection?

Author: Eduardo Kapapelo
Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

My father used to say ‘politics must be conducted in a country which is open, a country which has the space for deliberation and opposing views’. He added that ‘politics must be conducted in a country which is mature’. We find ourselves in challenging times, times in which the openness and maturity of our countries are being tested.

A scale we can use to test the openness and maturity of our institutions is to interrogate (i), the nature our institutions; and (ii) the quality of our institutions. In regards to their nature we can reflect on how they are structured, what they look like on paper, and how they actually function in reality. As regards quality, we can reflect on how institutions respond to stress – how they respond to the demands of the people and whether they are mature enough to understand that when individuals take to the streets in the exercise of their human rights demanding better quality of life, they are not challenging the State, but rather exercise their constitutional right to be heard.

The quality of such institutions can also be seen by how States are able to provide for the most vulnerable in our communities – older persons, our poor and our sick. Moreover, such quality can be seen through how issues of inequality are handled and what is being done to narrow the gap. The past few months have added a new – unseen – stressor to our institutions. The outbreak of the novel Corona virus (COVID-19) serves as such a stressor. Yet, and despite its tragic consequences, COVID-19 seems to be highlighting countries’ social and institutional deficiencies while also serving as a barometer on how we as individuals can assess both the openness and maturity of our institutions. Such openness and maturity can be gauged by reflecting on the nature of institutions and how their nature impacts on its outputs through a quality lens.

Following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) designation of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, some countries have either declared states of emergencies or national shutdowns in attempts to prevent the further spread of the outbreak. Following such declarations, attention has to a large extent shifted to how states can mitigate the public health crises which will arise. It is such mitigation which leads us towards the importance of questioning and reflecting on the ‘nature’ and ‘quality’ of institutions.

If we speak of the ‘nature’ of institutions – and in particular those within closed political systems, the implementation of state of emergencies can be dangerous – such states can use the status quo to further restrict and undermine individual rights. This can perhaps be seen in Lebanon where the implementation of a national lock-down has effectively halted its revolution. What began as widespread protest action due to planned increase in commodities such as gasoline, turned into widespread condemnation of Lebanon’s sectarian rule, a rule which enabled high levels of corruption and impunity. Such protest action pointed out the government’s inability to provide some of the most basic services. It brought to light the nature of Lebanon’s institutions and through it, seeing that its nature, negatively impacts on their qualitative outputs.

While there are real concerns regarding the implementation of lock-downs, such actions in varying contexts – and if not properly overlooked are in danger of being used by other states with closed political systems to stifle the voices of individuals who have the objective of demanding that the institutions align themselves more with democratic principles. It is important to stress that national lock-downs in light of COVID-19 have been supported by thousands of medical professionals around the world, who in turn have been supported by experts and governments who have also supported campaigns of isolation. In addition, the WHO has also given strong support and advice against mass gatherings.

However, we must continue to be vigilant and not allow such limitations on our rights to be expanded unnecessarily. We must be particularly vigilant in states that have records of undermining human rights. Moreover, during these uncertain times we must continue to demand that our governments work for us and that their efforts to curb this pandemic are done in a measured and appropriate manner based on realistic threat assessments, while consistently placing democratic principles and human rights at the heart of such strategies.

As per the ‘quality’ of institutions COVID-19 has perhaps demonstrated how the ‘nature’ of institutions have influenced over the years, their quality through institutional outputs. The COVID-19 response has continued to bring to light ‘uncomfortable’ societal issues which have for a long time been neglected – these are issues which range from inept educational and health systems, homelessness in our societies, poverty and its link to inequality and how these factors all come together to create the perfect storm for ease through which the spread of this virus can continue.

So what’s the point?

States characterised by open institutions are in a better position to mould mature institutions which in turn have the potential to be of a better quality which in turn provide more positive outputs. While countries like China, who for argument sake have been regarded as having closed political system with poor human rights record seem – at least for now, to be weathering the storm quite well  regarding COVID-19, the polar opposite would be so in a country like Angola, which has a far inferior health system.

In addition, in Hungary COVID-19 has been used as a pretext to undermine democracy through a recent Parliamentary vote which allows the President to rule by decree indefinitely. This vote is one which would also cancel any future elections while also heavily restricting the rights and freedoms of the media. States and individuals alike need to reflect both on the nature and quality of their institutions and then assess whether they are able to provide for their people.

Today, issues of inequality are brought to light through those who are not able to wash their hands because of the failure of governments to provide for the basic right of access to water, and through massive corruption which cuts into resources required to support health care initiatives. These examples speak loudly about the nature of institutions and directly links to their ability to combat this global pandemic.

As states deploy the might of their security apparatus in an attempt to enforce cordons and lock-downs it is important to note that though such sweeping and restricting powers are very easy to employ, they may not be as easy to retract.  This is especially so in in countries like Angola who have a history of repression and human rights violations and which has yet to fully consolidate its democratic system.

As someone who has a lived experience within a highly militarised society I am always weary and concerned about the deployment and use of military personnel for internal purposes. Such forces has neither the training nor ability to maintain law and order of a civilian population – their standard operating procedures are simply not equipped for such action. Yet, their use and necessity during these uncertain times will perhaps only fully be felt and measured in the weeks and months to come. It is important that we remain vigilant, and that we ensure that our real and perceived fears of the unseen does not lead us to freely and silently surrender our rights and freedoms.

About the Author:

Eduardo Kapapelo is a Doctoral candidate and Project Coordinator at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. His research interests include human rights and foreign policy, comparative constitutional law and normative political theory.



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