At the same time, the virus has thrown up obstacles to voting in person and other forms of political participation that might fight these problems. Elected officials who are willing to lean into demagoguery have sought to exploit the pandemic for their own purposes — and in many cases, they may be succeeding.
A new report released Friday by Freedom House, a nongovernmental, nonpartisan advocacy organization established in 1941, found that since the start of the pandemic, the state of democracy and human rights has worsened in at least 80 countries out of 192 nations surveyed.
The report is based on an anonymous online survey of 398 experts and the work of Freedom House’s own analysts. It presents a troubling paradox: The pandemic has made the case for political participation more urgent, while at the same time disrupting democratic institutions that enable that participation.
Protests are one example. Freedom House identified significant political protests in at least 90 countries since the outbreak began. In many cases, the virus has helped to trigger action over long-standing grievances — protesters in authoritarian Belarus, for example, were brought out by both a disputed election and a lackluster and opaque pandemic response.
But, concurrently, restrictions on protests have spread dramatically during this time of unrest: Freedom House counted 158 countries where some form of new legislation has restricted protest during the pandemic, including some established democracies.
This week in Israel, where demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have continued for months, the country’s parliament approved lockdown plans that would effectively end protests. “More than a campaign against the pandemic, this is a campaign against dissent,” the journalist Gershom Gorenberg wrote.
The problem is acute in developing nations or countries where democracy was already under threat. As a respondent to the Freedom House survey said of Turkey, the pandemic “was used as an excuse for the already oppressive government to do things that it has long planned to do, but had not been able to.”
In countries such as Egypt, Zimbabwe and Cambodia, governments were reported to be using emergency powers to crack down on political opposition. “The judiciary has become a puppet of the executive branch,” a respondent said of Serbia, noting that trials were “conducted via video link, without the presence of defense attorneys.”
Experts from 66 countries said the virus had “led to a proliferation of disinformation coming from the government” in their nation. Assessing accurate information had become more difficult due to crackdowns on freedom of speech — in at least 91 of 192 countries studied, there were restrictions on news media.
In nine countries, national elections have been disrupted by the pandemic. Freedom House points to places like Sri Lanka, where an election planned for April was postponed, effectively allowing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rule without an opposition-held legislature for months.
When that election was finally held in August, Rajapaksa’s party “won the elections in a landslide, adding to fears that he and his brother, former president and current prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, would consolidate power and build an authoritarian regime,” Freedom House noted.
The U.S. presidential election is given its own section in the report. “Many experts have expressed doubt that local election authorities across the country are prepared for the November elections, citing increased demand for voting by mail, likely staffing shortfalls, and last-minute changes to electoral rules,” the report states.
The Trump administration created “a fog of misinformation” amid the pandemic, Freedom House asserts, while the country’s death toll rose to the highest total in the world, at over 200,000. Such concerns increased after a divisive performance by President Trump at a presidential debate on Tuesday.
“Our motherland of democracy has gone down a dangerous path,” Stephan Bierling, an international politics professor at the University of Regensburg in Germany, told my colleagues, referring to the United States.
This global political impact will probably outlive the virus. Of the 398 experts Freedom House surveyed, 64 percent said the impact of the coronavirus on their country would be mostly negative for up to five years, long after experts believe the virus will have faded as a major public health problem.
That may be underselling it. In a separate poll released Thursday, 69 percent of Americans said that the upcoming U.S. presidential election was the most important of their lifetime. It’s hard to imagine that many view that in a positive manner: There are fears of post-election violence from militias if Trump loses.
Not all democracies are flailing. The report notes the positive appraisals experts had of Tunisia, which provided aid to refugees and minorities during the pandemic despite the country’s economic devastation, and Georgia, which implemented “strict but transparent” measures and has one of the world’s lowest death rates.
Unlike in times of war, there appears to be little “rally around the flag” sentiment in countries seen to have handled the virus badly. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who commands a sizable parliamentary majority and is not up for election until 2024, is facing a rebellion from his own former backers.
Even in authoritarian countries, democratic activism seems to be remarkably persistent. “Democracy is suffering around the world, but the public’s demand for it has not been extinguished,” Freedom House noted, referring to the protests in Belarus.
Freedom House offers some solutions for democratic backsliding amid the pandemic — sensible measures like combating corruption and ensuring emergency powers have time limits.
The problem with that, as Today’s WorldView has noted before, is that pandemics have a habit of reinforcing society’s faults. Before the pandemic began this year, Freedom House warned that for the 14th year in a row, political freedoms and civil liberties across the world were backsliding.
The pandemic may be a tipping point rather than a turning point. As Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale, told the New Yorker in March, epidemics “seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are.”