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COVID-19 puts democracy in jeopardy

  COVID-19 puts democracy in jeopardy

Foto. Unsplash/Element5 Digital

Juan Vila
Spain among 34 countries with a medium risk of having their rights and freedoms affected

In a matter of months, the new coronavirus has turned the world on its head and we still have no idea what the future consequences will be for various aspects of our lives. The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg is adding its grain of sand to the scholarly response to the outbreak through the publication of its Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project's Pandemic Backsliding Risk Index. The index analyses how COVID-19 may impact countries' democratic quality, grouping them into four categories: low risk, medium risk, high risk and closed autocracies.

Spain is among the 34 countries that, according to the indicators, have a medium risk of seeing their rights and freedoms backslide due to the current crisis. Other countries with the same rating include the United States, Switzerland, Poland and Russia. This is in comparison with the group of 47 countries with a low risk, which includes Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.


No country is risk-free

Jordi Mas Elias, professor at the UOC Faculty of Law and Political Science, is very familiar with these types of indices and in fact used them in his research project, Espaa en los indicadores internacionales de democracia (Spain in the international democracy indicators). His research showed that between 2010 and 2019 there was an important drop in democratic quality, due to factors such as the difficulties in organizing plebiscites for holding governments accountable in light of public opinion, or limitations to freedom of expression.

According to Mas, "V-Dem's index is very complex and relies on a highly current methodology that allows variations in countries' democratic levels to be detected in the long term. They were the first to start monitoring the situation from the pandemic's onset and have clearly shown that COVID-19 could pose a threat to democracy in countries all over the world".


Curbing freedoms

However, Mas has his qualms about some of the V-Dem project's conclusions: "The reason given for Spain being at medium risk is that freedom of access to information has been curtailed, but they don't specify how. Apart from this fact, the index doesn't indicate any major differences between the measures taken by Spain and other low-risk countries like France, Germany or the United Kingdom."

All of these countries have restricted the right to gather, protest and move about freely in order to avoid new infections. The autonomic elections in Galicia and the Basque Country were postponed just like the municipal elections in France.

Mas said that "the justification for these measures is the state of emergency and the hope is that things will go back to normal once it is over". However, he went on to say: "In the field of political science there is a general feeling of unease because, in exceptional crisis situations, war or major shock, states can appropriate a series of rights that they don't necessarily return to citizens, resulting in a loss of democratic control. The danger is when the exception slowly becomes the norm. That's why we must be particularly alert, and these indicators help measure this risk."


Overly centralized, across-the-board decisions

Where Spain does differ from other countries considered low-risk is in how decisions have been made. As Mas said: "In the majority of decentralized states, like the United States, Germany or Canada, the political entities at individual territorial level have had a significant say in the crisis' management, whereas Spain has adopted a very centralized approach applying an across-the-board solution to all its regions. This would have made sense if the central government were always in charge of handling each region's health matters or if the pandemic had affected each one the same, but that isn't the case. The virus has not had the same impact in Andalusia as in La Rioja, for example, not to mention in the Balearic or Canary Islands, where the number of cases were minimal yet the strictest measures were applied. It simply doesn't work for a central government to make risk-related decisions involving powers it does not usually possess while having no first-hand knowledge of the territory in question."

Even more alarming is what is happening in the high-risk countries, which may hark the coming of an anti-democratic drift. Some examples are the unprecedented strengthening of executive powers in Hungary, the persecution of journalists in different parts of the world or the discrimination shown to refugees by countries in their attempts to control the pandemic, already denounced by Freedom House.


Are totalitarian countries more efficient?

There is also concern about the use of computer applications to keep tabs on citizen's movements and who they have been with or crossed paths with. These control measures, originally intended to confirm that people are observing the lockdown, prevent further contagion and notify a person's contacts that he or she has tested positive for COVID-19, could also seriously jeopardize our right to privacy.

The pandemic has also forced us to ask the question: are totalitarian countries much more efficient than their democratic counterparts in battling a crisis of this magnitude? Mas questions the idea, saying: "It's something that is going to be studied in depth and which is of great interest to academia, but in places like South Korea where pre-emptive measures were taken and they were able to contain the virus, the tools had nothing to do with totalitarianism. Germany was also successful, and it is a mature democracy. Its mortality rate is extremely low, which could indicate that the measures taken were the correct ones. Democracies can use effective mechanisms as well, perhaps due to a certain sense of civil culture or social responsibility towards the populace."