Never in history has there been such a widespread restriction on movement. Around the globe, countries rushed to enact emergency restrictions to protect their citizens from the novel coronavirus. Over a year later, many of these restrictions are still in place. There is hope on the horizon for a future without lockdowns, masks, and social distancing. As we get closer to this future, however, questions abound about the lasting impact of the pandemic.
In a time of crisis, even the most democratic governments receive emergency powers, often with the support of their citizens. Levitsky and Zablatt in their book How Democracy Dies, point out that people are more willing to tolerate and even support authoritarian actions during these times. The problem comes when those authoritarian practices are institutionalized and citizens’ rights are not protected.
Recent events in Britain provide an excellent example of the harms that can come from emergency measures that prioritize public health above all else. Mourners in Britain came together in a vigil in response to the murder of Sarah Everett. The police deemed the gathering unlawful because of guidelines set for the pandemic. What started as a vigil turned into a demonstration about violence against women and a spectacle of police misconduct.
These events were set against the backdrop of the U.K.’s proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Court Bill. This bill seeks to enact a wide range of policy changes, many that could be potentially helpful. There is, however, a key piece to it that has led to backlash from civil rights activists. That piece would greatly expand the authority of the police to break up protests. Anything deemed a ‘public nuisance’ could be disbanded, which is a clear step in the wrong direction.
The conversation around freedom of assembly in Britain is not just about violence against women, police brutality, or protecting the right to protest, it is also about the world that Covid-19 has created.
Democracy was already declining around the world, but the onset of the pandemic has only served to exacerbate its descent. A report published in the Journal of Law and Biosciences uses the United Kingdom as one of many examples where well-intended COVID-19 restrictions have failed to protect democratic freedoms. Freedom House has also documented a decline in freedom and human rights in 80 countries, with improvement in only one country. Both of these reports document an alarming trend towards authoritarian government.
The authoritarianism of today looks different than it did during the Cold War era. Outright oppression has been replaced with subtler tactics that retain the appearance of democracy. Ozan O. Varol calls this Stealth Authoritarianism.
Think authoritarianism crafted to avoid the costs of outright oppression. It is a cooptation of the language and performances of democracy while promoting practices that actively undermine checks on power. Such a process has been seen over the past decade or so in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Mechanisms to achieve stealth authoritarianism may include the use of libel lawsuits to restrict the press, changes in election law to disenfranchise voters or prevent new parties from emerging, and charging dissidents with crimes to silence them through the legal system.
Freedom House identified five ways that freedoms have been attacked by governments during the pandemic: transparency, free media and expression, credible elections, checks against abuses of power, and protection of vulnerable groups. This has looked like denying freedom of expression or crackdowns of critical coverage by the media. Elections were delayed, opposition parliaments dissolved, and election observers were restricted with quarantine rules. There have also been arrests related to the pandemic recorded in 66 different countries.
Notice any similarities?
Saving lives and protecting public health is absolutely important. They are also necessary and will remain so until the pandemic ends. However, governments around the world need to abandon all or nothing emergency measures and find common-sense middle ground solutions. Stopping the authoritarianism of today means stopping abuses of government power. It means protecting real rights while retaining an active civil society as well as checks and balances. Preserving the heart of democracy not just the facade of it.
As Freedom House put it “freedom is fragile and requires constant cultivation.” People around the world have shown that they will not let their freedoms be taken so easily. It is crucial to strengthen institutions, put time limits on emergency power, and ensure democracy is being upheld in a meaningful way.