Chairman's Desk

Democracy in the time of COVID-19

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on April 12, 2020.

Among the more concerning broader societal consequences of the coronavirus — economic collapse, fear-mongering, widespread distrust — is a stunningly rapid deterioration of democracy.

To exploit popular anxiety as a pretence to seize power is a tactic as old as plague itself. When William Cecil, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth I, was battling the Black Death, he won the ability to shut the sick inside their homes for up to six weeks (likely reasonable enough) but then went on to pass the Plague Act of 1604, which banned any criticism of this unprecedented power.

Dealing effectively with pandemics can reasonably support the suspension of some norms and freedoms, but a careful balance must be struck.

We have already seen the virus extinguish popular protest movements from Iran to Hong Kong. Now, in some places, we are seeing how it threatens democracy itself.

To be clear, this is not about the lockdowns, quarantines, and mandatory physical distancing measures imposed by almost every responsible government in response to COVID-19. But even these sensible rules, in most cases guided by the advice of public health authorities, have resulted in penalties that can be unduly heavy-handed. Steep fines, such as the $300,000 one levelled against a Brampton-area man who hosted a backyard party for 20 friends, are an example. Surely there are reasonable limits to such sanctions.

What does concern me are the ominous cases of democratic rollbacks, like the ones we are now witnessing in Hungary. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed through a draconian law that allows the prime minister to rule by decree, suspend Parliament and repeal any existing law and do so indefinitely.

The state will now impose years-long jail terms for sharing nebulously defined “fake news,” or acting to impede the response to the virus, giving the authorities wide latitude to imprison political dissidents. While these measures firmly tip the EU member state from democracy to dictatorship, the rest of the Union, mired as they are in their own COVID-19 response problems, hardly seem to have noticed.

Hungary is not walking this dangerous path alone. In Thailand, the prime minister has used his new powers to impose harsh curfews and expand censorship of the news media. In Chile, the military patrol the streets and public squares, having conveniently crushed protestors who had disrupted the country for months before the virus arrived.

And the list goes on. Amid the panic of the pandemic, it can be difficult to detect where, exactly, the line falls between justified response and anti-democratic exploitation. Some of the countries that have been most successful at flattening the curve have deployed aggressive contact tracing techniques that, on their face, would violate civil rights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the use of invasive cellphone location tracking, intended for counterterrorism, to track those who test positive for the virus and monitor others with whom they may have come into contact. The South Korean government’s policy of releasing detailed information including the names and movements of newly diagnosed cases has inadvertently revealed sexual affairs and other embarrassing personal information.

What’s more, even well-established democracies are flirting with injustice. Despite pleas from the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, the Republican-dominated legislature, abetted by the state Supreme Court, has used the crisis to play partisan politics. In recent voting, it refused to extend the window for mail-in ballots and reduced the number of polling stations in the state from 180 to five, all of which were conveniently located in areas that lean Republican.

As the curve is flattened and the threat of the virus recedes, it remains to be seen how many of these unjust measures will be repealed. The last time Orban awarded himself extraordinary powers under the guise of an emergency — powers he has yet to relinquish — it was the 2011 migrant crisis.

What every strongman has understood, from Cecil to Orban, is that a frightened public is also a compliant public. For the sake of our democracy, our leaders must understand that while we are willing to be compliant, to do our duty, to surrender some of our individual rights and liberties for the collective good, we are not frightened. Not in the least.