Covid: The touchstone of democracy?
With vaccinations hopefully ending the pandemic soon, a reflection on Yuval Harari’s gloomy forecast that COVID-19 benefits authoritarian regimes at the cost of democracy.
When Yuval Harari (the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) spoke as the keynote speaker on the Athens Democracy Forum last year, he expressed his fear that: “When people look back in forty or fifty years at the Covid crisis, they will not remember the masks or the virus. They will remember this was the time when surveillance really took over. This was the time when democracy failed, and authoritarian regimes took over.”
In Europe, a continent united by mostly liberal democracies, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely limited freedoms and weakened democracies. A recent report by human rights watchdog Civil Liberties Union for Europe raised concerns about the impact of Covid on democracy in all EU countries, even those with strong democratic traditions. In particular, accelerated law-making and constraints on the right to protest pose a risk to, for example, the democracies of Germany and Sweden, possibly with long-term negative effects, according to the report.
In the Netherlands, as well, these warnings should not be dismissed too easily. The curfew, one of the Dutch government’s most freedom-restricting measures was challenged before the District Court of The Hague because of its alleged illegality; it was claimed that the government illegitimately adopted the measure on the basis of a law for which it did not have to involve the Houses of the States General. In the end, the Court of Appeal held that the measure imposing the curfew was legitimate. Nevertheless, this incident signals how important it is never to take our liberties and democracies for granted. Evidently, in the case of an emergency, accelerated law-making may be required in order to protect public health. But it also reduces transparency and democratic participation and should therefore be subject to judicial review.
Fortunately, this type of government control is still guaranteed in the Netherlands, something that cannot be said for all European countries. The report by Civil Liberties Union for Europe warned that countries whose governments already have authoritarian tendencies are most prone to attacks on democracy during the pandemic. While protection of public health seemed the genuine aim of the Dutch government, other governments intentionally exploit emergency measures to the detriment of freedom and democracy. Under the guise of public health protection, governments in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia have disproportionately limited media freedom, access to information, and the independent functioning of the judiciary.
When looking outside of Europe, China offers a ‘perfect’ example of how this process can work in the extreme sense. From the very beginning, China mobilised a range of high-tech surveillance tools. After months of perfecting these tools, the Chinese authority can now within hours trace the whereabouts of confirmed cases that have occurred in the past few days. In addition, it can track down people who were in close contact with the infected person, and semi-automatically notify the local official in charge of supervising their testing/quarantining; sometimes even before these people are aware of this themselves.
This ‘Orwellian’ surveillance style, combined with brute force by the State, defines China’s approach to Covid. While the West aims to control the virus, China is determined to eliminate it at all cost. Although this approach comes with the direct cost of immense human suffering, information about which has also been silenced and censored, the State is satisfied it is winning this battle precisely because it is not a democracy and hence better at addressing crises like the pandemic.
Carl Schmitt, a Nazi scholar whose work is now vehemently followed and used by some Chinese legal elites, echoes this assertion. Schmitt was a proponent of the democratic State, yet his views on democracy were rather totalitarian, antiliberal and antipluralistic. He labelled liberal governments as weak when faced with an emergency. In his opinion, the technical nature of liberal constitutionalism, i.e. the system of checks and balances, leaves it unable to deal effectively with exceptional situations.
In January this year, China’s president told a gathering of government officials that ‘the world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century, but time and situation are in our favour’. Even back in October 2017, long before the pandemic, he also stood in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and told the Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China was entering a new era. It would be a time, he said, in which all would ‘see China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind’. Clearly, he envisions the reverse of Francis Fukuyama’s End of history, in which democracy is held as the universal governance model. Here, Schmitt, an inspirational figure for President Xi’s lawyers, would agree with him. According to Schmitt, the totalitarian State could not only perpetuate itself indefinitely, but it could also replicate itself throughout the world like a virus.
The responses of the world’s democracies to China’s Covid assertiveness might deserve criticism equally to their response to the virus itself and this warrants another separate analysis. China is winning the global image fight, and is, through the relentless effort of its diplomats and State machine propaganda, portrayed by many in the global peripheral as a success story in the fight against Covid. So why not export China’s victorious experience to other like-minded States? While the situation is still evolving, the pandemic might become a tipping point of many kinds, mostly in China’s favour and to the detriment of the West.
It is therefore important to remember that just as no individual is immune to Covid, no country is immune to threats to democracy. Nonetheless, we would like to end with a rather positive note. An effective response against the pandemic has been achieved by a robust democracy like Taiwan, a break-away Chinese society, with its transparent and truthful dissemination of information and innovative civil engagement of all sorts. Like Yuval Harari spelled out, we all have a choice here.