A key concern is that COVID-19 will turn the current democratic recession into a depression, with authoritarianism sweeping across the globe like a pandemic.
The coronavirus outbreak presents a range of new challenges to democracy and human rights. Repressive regimes have responded to the pandemic in ways that serve their political interests, often at the expense of public health and basic freedoms. Even open societies face pressure to accept restrictions that may outlive the crisis and have a lasting effect on liberty.
The pandemic is unfolding at a time when democracy is in decline. According to data compiled by Freedom House (2020), democracy has been in a recession for over a decade, and more countries have lost rather than gained civil and political rights each year.
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A key concern is that Covid-19 will turn the democratic recession into a depression, with authoritarianism sweeping across the globe like a pandemic. As the New York Times puts it, “China and some of its acolytes are pointing to Beijing’s success in coming to grips with the coronavirus pandemic as a strong case for authoritarian rule” (Schmemann 2020). Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has called its forceful lockdown “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment in history.”
Ratchet effect theory
Countries have issued emergency orders on freedoms of movement, association, assembly, religion, and privacy, among others. Citizens generally understand the need to stop the spread of this highly contagious and deadly pandemic, except perhaps for a vocal few. But emergency orders limiting rights and giving governments more power have a tendency to stick around longer than originally expected.
In the 1980s, economist Robert Higgs developed the “ratchet effect theory” to explain crises like the one we are currently experiencing. This theory holds that during crises, governments expand the size and scope of their powers, but when the crisis ends, these expanded powers never fully return to precrisis levels. Having grown accustomed to its newfound authorities, the government is reluctant to relinquish these powers, which become the new status quo. Like a mechanical ratchet that can only go in one direction, the government rarely gets smaller, only larger.
Both constitutional democracies and authoritarian-leaning countries have shown their willingness to impose emergency orders and keep them in place once the crisis ends, succumbing to the ratchet effect. Nearly all the world’s democratic governments have issued emergency orders of some kind or another to stop the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. These emergency orders shift what some critics are calling “eye-watering” new levels of authority to the government to control our lives, borders and movements.
Research suggests two factors that counteract the ratchet effect. The first comes from independent watchdogs, individuals and organizations that document, publicize and hold governments to account for their actions. The second involve sunset provisions, or specific provisions contained within the emergency orders themselves that bring them to an end.
Civil society organizations and human rights groups have been closely monitoring the scope and spread of pandemic-related legal measures. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s covid-19 Election Monitor, and the International Press Institute’s tracker on Media Freedom Violations, are just a few of many examples.
Sunset provisions require governments to reevaluate an emergency order by a specified date. These help keep emergency orders temporary and, while in effect, narrowly tailored to the situation.
In taking concerted action to prevent and repair the damage caused by pandemic-related rights violations, democracy’s defenders should consider how the crisis has disproportionately affected marginalized people, often exacerbating inequalities.
COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, neither are antidemocratic forces. At some point these renewals must end. The watchdogs help hold governments to those self-imposed deadlines.