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The Coronavirus Is Killing Democracy

October 13, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to American exceptionalism. In all the worst ways—number of deaths, incoherence of government response, international irrelevance—the United States has exceeded both its allies and rivals. In the degradation of the institutions of free society and good government, America has found itself succumbing to tragic international trends. For the past 14 years, democracy around the world has been in decline, including in the United States, which has seen its score slip by more than 7 percent since 2013. A new report by Freedom House shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the global trend. Not letting a serious crisis go to waste, leaders on every continent are grasping their power more tightly.

Around the world, from Sri Lanka to Turkey and from Hungary to Bolivia, rulers have been taking advantage of the pandemic to erode political rights and postpone elections. This is not only objectionable on its own merits. According to the report, these measures are also diminishing confidence in governments, which makes containing the pandemic even more difficult. Among the study’s respondents, 62 percent said that “they distrust what they are hearing about the pandemic from [their country’s] national government.” Naturally, this lack of confidence is higher in less free countries, though a majority of Americans also distrust what the president says about a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

The spread of disinformation has not helped, either. Deliberately misleading information sometimes originates in the confusion of social media crowds, but it also often comes from government officials. A Polish respondent complained that Polish official are “making unfounded statements not based on actual data.” This is similar to the trends in the United States, where politicians are misleading the public in response to pressure from their constituents to be misled.

Independent media are usually bulwarks against misinformation, but not always, and not where they don’t exist. In countries rated by Freedom House as “Not Free,” independent media exist in the margins or not at all. To make matters worse, in many countries, freedoms of the press and expression have been under assault in the name of fighting the pandemic. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has criminalized reporting false news, which is defined by his own government. In Kyrgyzstan, a respondent said that “Medical workers who openly spoke out about the problems they encountered were forced to apologize and recant their claims on video.” The Rwandan government has been cracking down on journalists who have been reporting on COVID-19 related issues.

But the press aren’t the only victims of political repression. In several countries, elections have been postponed over and over again. Democracy and human rights professionals have had to scale back their operations due to lockdowns. Some leaders have indefinitely suspended parliaments or used emergency measures to increase their influence over their legislatures. And, naturally, minorities, likely to be poorer due to systemic injustices, have suffered the most due to lack of access to government assistance. In Brazil and some other countries, national governments have deliberately designed relief measures to exclude minority parts of the population.

In this dark picture, there are shades of light. Some of the Brazilian president’s policies have been struck down by the country’s independent judiciary. A federal judge recently blocked an effort by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to limit ballot drop-off locations to one per county. South Korea and New Zealand, benefiting from their consolidated democratic institutions and wealth, have been able to go ahead with their elections as scheduled. Even though media have been under assault, support for them has risen around the world as people are seeking more information. The report is careful to distinguish that even though “democracy is suffering around the world, but the public’s demand for it has not been extinguished.”

To combat the erosion of liberty, Freedom House makes several recommendations, chief among the establishment an ambassador-at-large for promotion freedom of the press around the world. The State Department already has ambassadors-at-large for counterterrorism, global women’s issues, AIDS, international religious freedom, global criminal justice, and human trafficking—press freedom seems almost overlooked.

Other proposals include the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, which would ensure pro-democracy organizations have access to necessary resources during the pandemic, and ILLICIT CASH Act or Corporate Transparency Act (respectively the Senate and House versions of the same bill) which “prohibit corrupt actors from hiding behind shell corporations.” All three bills enjoy bipartisan support.

The portion of the report is dedicated to how the pandemic has hurt our own democracy in the United States cuts the deepest. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much of funding democracy organizations receive, as necessary as they are, or which persons and entities the U.S. government sanctions for human rights abuses. The United States remains the beacon of democracy and its guarantor. Washington’s dysfunction over the past many years and the current and previous administrations’ lack of dedication to and investment in protecting and promoting democracy around the world have contributed to the rapid decline of democracy. The pandemic has just accelerated that trend.

This is not just bad news on moral grounds. Democracies are natural allies of each other against autocracies that threaten them. With the return of great power competition against China and Russia, the United States needs a freer world. The next administration should take note.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.