When crises happen, governments act now and will be judged later. Across the world governments are taking radical steps to control the coronavirus with very little critique. This is perhaps an approach consistent with crises. When people are scared, they turn to authority for reassurance. It will be later, when the crisis has passed, that the analysis of actions will begin. And no government will get off lightly; this is a topic that will be debated for years. Could the crisis have been prevented? Was government action sufficient? Who is responsible? But for now, politics experiences a severe absence of an active populace. And democracy may suffer because of it.
Coronavirus has come to be a centre point of all political discussion across the world; last Sunday Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders went head to head in a debate dominated by coronavirus. Despite the divisions between the candidates on most issues, the candidates also displayed consensus that more aggressive government action was needed. And the coronavirus has forced cooperation in practice as well. After 15 months of stalemate, political parties in Belgium have granted special powers to fight coronavirus to a minority administration led by the caretaker prime minister. A democratic crisis that looked likely to continue has been suddenly solved, a testament perhaps to the idea that crises can bring out the best in people.
But even in a time of solidarity, individuals will use the crisis for their own gains. Trump reportedly offered a German medical company $1bn to secure the vaccine only for the United States. This can be seen as an electioneering move, designed to help Trump in his election year. This is a very low blow, even in Trump’s terms. And it is certain that governments will be considering public opinion very carefully when they decide their response to the crisis. Coronavirus will influence electoral outcomes for years.
The UK has followed the example of other countries in Europe this week by extending social distancing measures beyond the voluntary; police can now close businesses and fine individuals who neglect the rules. An unprecedented bill has been moving through the houses of parliament giving the government new powers for a duration of up to two years. Measures which in another setting would be decried as undermining fundamental liberties have been passed with little debate, besides a key amendment by MPs to review the powers every six months. Worrying elements of the legislation include freeing councils from their responsibilities under the Care Act 2014, amending the Mental Health Act to make it easier for individuals to be sectioned, and the extension of emergency surveillance powers from five to twelve working days. Emergency legislation may be essential to save lives, but it would be unwise not to keep a close eye on the government’s actions over the coming weeks to ensure it does not overstep the mark.
The pandemic has created a wartime-esque atmosphere. Consensus and solidarity abound in politics. But beneath this, our lives are being shaped in the most dramatic way they could, and we must not forget that democracy requires true accountability. There is consensus that drastic action must be taken, but the media, opposition parties, and we the people, must ensure that all measures are scrutinised.
Image: Marrz13 via flickr