Over 500 political and civil society leaders, Nobel laureates and rights groups, on Thursday warned that some governments were 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 Nobel Peace Prize laureates Shirin Ebadi, Lech Walesa, and Jose Ramos-Horta, among others, the authors called the ongoing pandemic a “formidable global challenge to democracy.”
“Democracy is under threat, and people who care about it must summon the will, the discipline, and the solidarity to defend it,” the authors wrote. “At stake are the freedom, health, and dignity of people everywhere.”
The letter — the aim of which is to raise “awareness and mobilize citizens” — was initiated by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
“Just as the pandemic is already having massive economic and social consequences, it is very likely already having very profound political consequences,” Kevin Casas-Zamora, the organization’s secretary-general, told AFP.
Stressing that it was still early days and the full impact on democracy would have to be evaluated later, Casas-Zamora noted there were already worrying signs.
Casas-Zamora pointed to “cases like Hungary where basically the emergency powers invoked by the government had no expiration date.”
Those powers were lifted however by a unanimous vote in parliament on June 16 that took effect the following day.
Casas-Zamora pointed also to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte‘s expansion of emergency powers and El Salvador’s use of detention centers as other causes for concern.
Noting that emergency powers were a “legitimate part of the arsenal” of democratic governments to deal with exceptional circumstances, Casas-Zamora said the exercise of those powers had to be “proportional to the emergency.”
Speaking of how to balance strict measures such as lockdowns with protecting liberties, he noted that it was still hard to gauge exactly which strategy was most efficient.
As a result, it was important to not fixate on whether you had the “correct” policy but instead on whether you could adjust that policy.
“There’s a greater chance of finding that right balance if you are able to experiment and able to correct and adjust your public policies,” Casas-Zamora said.
Another worry was that not only would some governments overreach with their policies, people would also become “numb” to those types of overreaches when gripped by fear of the disease.
“A fearful citizenry tolerates that and becomes used to a more constrained space to exercise their fundamental rights,” Casas-Zamora said.