Will the coronavirus kill democracy?

All over the world people agree to their rights being exchanged for an illusory sense of security

The world will never be the same once the coronavirus crisis is over. A sentence like this can be read or heard in every second analysis or interview on the topic, across the globe, on a daily basis. Few dare to enter deeper into details and elaborate on what the differences from the pre-coronavirus situation will be eventually.

Making forecasts is not an easy task, especially in murky times on tricky topics. But one can turn back to history and look how nations and governments have reacted to similar crises, and what the final outcome was. History is always ready to give lessons and present examples in case one is able to ask the right questions and to make the proper analysis.

Back in the Middle Ages, when the Black Death was spreading across Europe (and maybe the globe), cities and states were closing gates and ports, quarantining whole villages and quarters and restricting the movement of residents for weeks and months. Does this sound familiar? Despite the measures, up to 25 million Europeans, or about one-third of the whole population of the continent, died in about four years. Their number could have been the same, more or less, with or without the measures, but what is sure is that following the crisis trade was disrupted for years, the economy was stagnating, and people lost the few rights they had achieved to obtain.

One may say, but there was no democracy then, and the notion of civil rights had not been formulated at the time either. That's true, but people still had certain political or economic rights, corresponding with the development of the city or state they were living in. And all these rights as a rule were more or less restricted during the crisis, and remained restricted after it was gone. That's what history shows.

In times of crisis, especially in times when the enemy is not another human being, but something less visible, yet still present, people tend to turn to the authorities in order to seek protection. It rarely comes for granted. Governments, even the most democratic ones, would be always tempted to get more power and to exercise that power under less control. And that's what a crisis like the one that is going on across the globe may be used for.

Few hints. Early in March, when the coronavirus outbreak in Europe was just starting, Russian President Vladimir Putin was allowed to run democratically for president once his term ends in 2024. He has been at the helm of Russia since 2000 and may stay until 2036. Nobody was able to react properly as the virus was advancing. On 30 March, the Hungarian parliament granted the government, aka PM Viktor Orban, emergency powers with no time limit, which he claims are needed in order to battle the Covid-19 crisis. Orban promised to return back to parliament all the powers once the crisis is over, but few really believe that this will happen.

In yet another repercussion of that power grab, more and more governments are using modern technologies to control people. South Korea was among the first to follow this path by using the so-called “contract tracing” to track Covid-19 patients using GPS data from their cars and cellphones. In Poland, authorities have launched a smartphone app, called Home Quarantine, for citizens returning from abroad who have been required since 15 March to self-isolate for two weeks. To register, they upload personal details and a photo. Both are a significant invasion into privacy which is most probably to last.

Obviously, democracy in the form we know it in the last 30 years is near gone. Attacked during the last decades from many sides and many actors - populists, authoritarians, terrorists, human traffickers, etc., it seems it is once again put under serious test. This time the attack went further, by confining people to their homes and making them believe that their enemy is the person next to them who can unwittingly transfer the disease. And here comes the government, forcing people to distance in order to protect them.

But there is no need for a government to say it. It is common sense to keep distance from those who are sick with infectious disease. It is common sense that confronting the coronavirus crisis will take extreme measures, but any infringement on civil liberties must be temporary and proportional. Crucially, emergency measures need to have a clearly defined time frame to avoid leading into a permanent state of emergency.

The pandemic may well lead to a serious decline in democracy around the world, and it is up to people to show to the governments that this should be temporary. Once the crisis is over and the virus is gone, all civil rights should be returned to people. But maybe that is already a Utopia, while an anti-Utopia is unleashing across the globe. Let's hope this would prove to be a false prophecy and the world will go out of the coronavirus pandemic suffering only economic consequences, although deep ones, and that we will avoid taking a dire turn to authoritarianism or other forms of non-democratic rule.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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