Last week, a group of political and civil society leaders, Nobel Laureates and rights groups warned that some governments are using the coronavirus pandemic to tighten their grip on power, undermining democracy and civil liberties.
In an open letter signed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, actor Richard Gere, and notable Nobel peace laureates, the authors said the global pandemic is a formidable challenge to democracy and stressed that repression will not help control the virus.
The leaders also noted that the freedom, health, and dignity of people are at stake and observed that people who care about democracy must defend it.
According to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), who initiated the letter, the aim is to raise awareness.
As we take note of the more glaring economic and social consequences of the pandemic across the globe, there are likely profound political consequences.
While IDEA’s secretary general, Kevin Casas-Zamora, pointed out that the full impact of the pandemic on democracy would have to be evaluated later, he noted that there were already worrying signs. In some countries, emergency powers invoked by governments had no expiration date.
While emergency response may be necessary to deal with exceptional circumstances, the exercise of such powers, as Casas-Zamora rightly noted, should be proportional to the emergency. Another concern is that some governments will overstretch their policies and people would become numb to such excesses because they are fearful of both Covid-19 and the repercussions of challenging unfair policies.
This is not the first time Covid-19 related emergency measures are being flagged. In April, concerns were raised about how authoritarians often take advantage of emergencies such as wars, natural disasters, terrorist attacks to strengthen their grip on power.
Many of the measures aimed at containing the spread of coronavirus are well intentioned and they have largely helped in curbing the virus in many countries. The concerns raised by the leaders under IDEA on misuse of emergency powers are, however, valid.
In some instances, the problem is not the measures but the implementation or blatant abuse. We have recorded several cases of abuse of power by rogue elements who claim to be enforcing presidential guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. These excesses, mostly committed by security personnel, range from shooting or beating up people, and extortion either for carrying passengers on motorcycles or moving during curfew hours.
Such actions instil fear in citizens and if not checked, it becomes what is now commonly being referred to as “new normal”.