The coronavirus crisis seems to have reduced societal functioning to the bare minimum as an increasing number of governments have limited freedom of movement in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. The introduction of several such authoritative measures needs to be counterbalanced by active citizens who continue to uphold democratic life and question these measures themselves, argues Isabelle Desportes, who studies how humanitarian emergencies are handled in settings where this is not the case. ‘Authoritarian dangers’ are not only a concern for far-away countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’, as European attempts are showing us these very days.
It is inherent to times of crises: many decisions and emergency legislative mechanisms will be enforced in countries all over the world these coming days and weeks. While such centralistic measures are often necessary, they also bear the risk of infringing on an effective and socially just handling of the pandemic now, and will shape our societies on the long term.
My research on disaster responses in Myanmar, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe showed that while responses to the disasters (a flood in 2015 in Myanmar and crippling drought in 2016 in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe) were mostly coordinated and efficient, the political contexts in which the disaster occurred meant that discussions on disaster preparedness and the modalities of relief were ignored. Important dynamics were observed for the three contexts: as the disasters destroyed homes, disrupted livelihoods and uprooted communities, their intense impacts had to be handled in the midst of ongoing marginalization of certain population groups at the hands of other groups and/or the state. Disaster responders were highly mobilized, but with little space to openly debate the modalities of relief, to have full insight into the extent of needs, and to raise concerns.
Following the disasters, a number of longer-term changes could be observed, according to the 271 disasters responders that I interviewed and who were active in organizations ranging from community groups to United Nations bodies:
- The already marginalized were impacted most strongly by the disasters, being the most vulnerable to start with (with limited coping capacities and safety nets, fewer rights, a lack of voice and bargaining power);
- Disaster responses were not always carried out in the common interest of societies at large and in accordance with humanitarian principles, but could serve as a conduit for violence, and to further enforce the interests of a few[i];
- This was mostly achieved not via bold announcements and clear restrictions, but through everyday acts. This includes how data is collected, analysed and shared as part of disaster needs assessments, or which seemingly bureaucratic conditions are tied to response mechanisms. The manner in which certain topics are routinely framed in public discourse also bears importance. When certain issues are not discussed transparently or not discussed at all, they cannot be taken care of[ii].
Myanmar seems to have embarked on a dubious handling of the coronavirus crisis already, denying cases of COVID-19 infections so far. But, crucially, the above described is not only a matter of concern for faraway countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’. In a 2019 article, political scientist Marlies Glasius highlights how authoritarianism applies not to entire regimes in an ‘all or nothing’ fashion, but to patterns of action that sabotage accountability between the people and their political representatives “by means of secrecy, disinformation and disabling voice”. Such practices can be applied everywhere, including in democratic settings.
The risk of this happening is especially high in situations of crisis, which, quite rightly so, call for urgent and extraordinary measures. Political leaders from France to Spain recently proclaimed that they were ‘waging wars’—rhetoric that bears the risk of stifling criticism and pluralistic views in the name of ‘national unity and security’. In academic jargon, such moves are termed ‘securitization’[iii]. In Israel, the transitional government just pushed through the use of mass surveillance techniques on civilians to ‘monitor the virus’. This move is not approved nor overseen by the Knesset, to the dismay of many lawyers and human rights organizations. The Hungarian parliament might have to enter a phase of imposed hibernation, and journalists could be fined for propagating ‘fake news’. In several European countries, governments are currently negotiating with telecommunication companies to track population movements. One of the advanced arguments? ‘This was effective in China’. Yet, these privacy-invading practices can also be difficult to unwind, and can set precedents.
A key democratic concern is not only how decisions are taken, but also whether they are taken in the common interest of societies at large. Our political representatives, the media, but also every one of us have a crucial role to play in this. Social and environmental issues must be kept central, not only serve as adjustment variables to the economic or political interests of a few. To take one example even closer to home: in the Netherlands, the government is currently likely to financially support airline company KLM, which would quickly go back to launching its climate-destroying 500,000 flights a year. If such an action really is in the collective long-term interest in our times of climate breakdown deserves to be discussed.
So yes: stay home, wash your hands. But also, depending on your possibilities and preferences, and picking your fights such as to not enter into senseless clicktivism: keep our democracies alive and ensure that institutions are held accountable for the decisions they take now. This crisis can be a political turning point, and it is for all of us to make that future a desirable one.
Follow parliamentary debates and news on government decisions, interact with your political representatives, check whether political and technical institutions act in line with their mandates, keep informed about social realities different from your own, send in reader letters and challenge the media to relay these different social realities and issues, financially support independent media and civil society advocacy groups, join ‘online demonstrations’ (see for instance the alternatives proposed for the Belgian march against racism last weekend), keep mobilized within your party, union or civil society collectives, or even create your own. And any other basic to creative means you might come up with, and would like to share in the comments?
[i] In Myanmar for instance, the government has long aimed to homogenise its multi-ethnic and religious peoples into a unified Buddhist and Bamar entity. During the response to 2015 cyclone Komen, state aid was biased against religious and ethnic minority groups, and self-help and non-state aid initiatives to help those groups were grossly hampered. Muslim communities were forcibly relocated in military vehicles following the floods, state aid was distributed from monasteries not accessible to non-Buddhist groups, and the Rohingya minority was framed in public discourse as not worthy of support.
[ii] This is linked to self-censorship practices, which I discussed with colleague Roanne van Voorst in another blog.
[iii] The term is generally associated with the Copenhagen School.
This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.
About the author:
Isabelle Desportes is a PhD researcher involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict” at the ISS.