How the pandemic has undermined democracies

Authoritarian leaders composite: EPA, Getty, Reuters, AP. Top Row: Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi. Bottom Row: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán.

The novel coronavirus is the biggest news story in a lifetime. For months, it has dominated the international media and become the most talked about topic on the planet. Front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news stories have focussed on the public health and economic consequences of the outbreak.

What has slipped under the public radar, however, is the danger that COVID-19 poses to democracy. Inadequate attention has been given to the political risks associated with the virus even though ominous warning signs are everywhere. Authoritarian leaders are using the crisis to undermine democracy.

Around the world, citizens accepted previously unthinkable restrictions on their basic freedoms in order to avert countless deaths. The loss of civil liberties – such as no public gatherings – were meant to be temporary. But in some nations, life has not returned to normal.

Unscrupulous leaders, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have exploited the virus to impose measures that they have long sought. Orbán has used the health crisis as a pretext to push through legislation which enables him to rule by decree indefinitely, effectively removing any oversight of his government.

In Russia, the assaults on democratic institutions have been even cruder. Foul play is believed to be behind the suspicious deaths of two doctors and the serious injury of another doctor. All three doctors mysteriously fell out of hospital windows. Each had criticised the country’s handling of the crisis and decried the lack of personal protective equipment.

Predictably, US President Donald Trump has also politicised the pandemic. Among other things, he attempted to quash dissent by limiting the press’ access to public health officials critical of his response. Trump also threatened to override the authority of governors to impose stay-at-home orders.

Trump’s disdain for independent institutions and for the separation of powers is shared by Brazil’s far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro. He has been following the same playbook as Trump, albeit in a more thuggish way. Bolsonaro called for a shutdown of the Supreme Court and Congress which are investigating him.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro displays utter contempt for his country’s system of checks and balances. Bolsonaro admires Trump and Trump, in turn, is a staunch ally of Bolsonaro. The nonchalance of both men in the face of a global pandemic is part of their shared political disposition.

Both leaders view the coronavirus threat with skepticism – Bolsonaro called it a “little flu” and Trump labelled it the “kung flu”. Bolsonaro sacked one health minister and provoked another to resign while Trump continues to squabble with his scientific advisers.

The Indian government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has used the virus to advance its anti-Muslim agenda. Hindu nationalists within the government have agitated against the Muslim minority, scapegoating them for causing the virus. This has led to physical and verbal warfare being waged against Muslims, pushing further their ostracisation in Indian society.

Iran, a government obsessed with tight control, has used the epidemic to deploy security forces to clear the streets. It has also used disinformation and cover-ups to keep the infection rate low so that – like all authoritarian governments – it can look competent and effective.

Across the world, public health officials are brushing up against ideologically-minded national leaders hell-bent on using COVID-19 as a cover for repressive, discriminatory or unconstitutional measures. Borzou Daragahi, an international correspondent for The Independent writes:

Months-long anti-government protests in Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon that have been a severe thorn in the side of the elites have been suspended. In Turkey, the conservative Islamist-rooted government has ordered bars, nightclubs and libraries to close over coronavirus fears, but is allowing shopping malls, stores and restaurants to remain open. … Leaders facing critical leadership challenges such as Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Romania’s prime minister Ludovic Orban found their political problems vanishing, at least temporarily.

The Romanian parliament reluctantly gave the embattled premier full powers. Meanwhile, Netanyahu was temporarily spared the indignity of appearing in court on three corruption cases after his hearings were postponed for two months due to coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings.

The pandemic has also highlighted how voting systems cannot handle disruption. As noted in one report:

Local and national elections around the world are being suspended – the logistics are too overbearing and costly in the midst of a crisis, and social distancing impossible during polling. These delays will undoubtedly erode trust in the system as leaders without a credible mandate bungle their way through an unprecedented crisis.

There is also concern over contact tracing apps. The governments of Singapore and Israel have used the crisis to track people through their mobile phones. Other countries have also loosened their restrictions on privacy by allowing surveillance apps that in normal times would be outrageous.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister, believes that the mass adoption of contact tracing apps is a slippery slope. He writes:

Before long, Europeans, Americans or others could find themselves living more like the Chinese, with every move monitored, every violation – even of unwritten rules – punished, and a “personal rating” dictating one’s access to travel and public services. This may seem far-fetched, but one need only consider the latest developments in Hungary or Poland to see just how vulnerable democratic institutions can be. If we are not careful, the biggest casualty of COVID-19 could be democracy.

It’s clear from what is happening across the globe that civil liberties have been severely weakened. Despots everywhere have tightened their grip on power to run roughshod over democracy and human rights. A recent article posted on the University of Melbourne’s multi-media platform, Pursuit, reported that:

An unprecedented number of countries have partially suspended their commitments under international human rights treaties and simultaneously established a state of emergency. … More than 50 countries have postponed elections, often with little certainty as to when and how they will be held. Concerns run high.

In a survey of 142 countries’ exposure to ‘pandemic backsliding’, the Varieties of Democracy Institute, which investigates the concept of democracy as a system of government, found emergency measures posed little threat to democracy in only 47 countries, including Australia. It also found that 82 countries are at high (48) or medium (34) risk, with the pandemic response accelerating or emphasising established trends of democratic decay, including some of the world’s largest democracies – the USA, Brazil, India, and Indonesia.

The alarming uptick in authoritarian behaviours by governments around the world is concerning. The global assault on liberal democracy is real with emergency powers being used to arrest protesters and sidestep democratic norms.

Let’s hope that temporary restrictions don’t outlive the crisis.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

2 Replies to “How the pandemic has undermined democracies”

  1. I really enjoy your blog….. even if this one rang depressingly true.

    Your blogs are usually an optimistic slant on my often pessimistic view….. so again this one is sobering.

    Keep them coming and thanks for the effort

  2. This is a critical and detailed analysis of the extant and potentially dire collateral effects of various government reactions to what should be purely public health exigencies. Thank you!

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