Viral (un)freedom in the era of COVID-19: It is all about trust

Governments across the globe have taken drastic measures to contain COVID-19 through lockdowns, limiting physical contact between people, and tracking citizens through geo-tagging on their cellphones. What will the lasting effects be of increased authoritarianism? asks Prof Joleen Steyn Kotze.

Police minister, Bheki Cele visits the Winelands in the Western Cape. Photo: SA Police Service

Seen as the most urgent global health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu, governments, whether authoritarian or democratic, claim that they are best equipped to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and are able to manage the social, economic and human-life cost of this disease. There is some concern that a lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a resurgence of authoritarianism where we see what Shaun Walker, foreign correspondent for The Guardian, describes as a “…political age in which soft authoritarians have turned harder, and the surveillance state becomes a way of life even in some democracies”. Indeed, as Jonathan Pearlman, editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, notes, this pandemic has geopolitical implications where we see a debate on the resilience of democracy in the time of COVID-19 or the rise of authoritarianism as “…COVID-19 is testing the resilience of the health, political and economic systems of different states”.

Democracies are generally regarded as more transparent than authoritarian systems. This is because of democratic values associated with civil and political liberties, including the right to access information, freedom of expression and speech, and norms of accountability and the free flow of information, as well as freedom of assembly, to allow people to govern. Indeed, according to an analysis by The Economist, “for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts”. Authoritarian regimes, however, “may be poorly suited to matters that require the free flow of information and open dialogue between citizens and rulers”, the article said.

The initial response in China to COVID-19 seemed to support this notion. Information was suppressed and those involved in identifying a potential new respiratory illness were disciplined for spreading rumours, for example, Dr Li Wenliang who later succumbed to COVID-19. Yet, looking at the global response, the performance of democratic vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes presents a mixed picture in successfully curbing the spread of the virus. France, the United Kingdom and the United States (the pinnacle of democratic norms) have registered far different responses than their Asian counterparts of Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. While some lauded this as different steps and capacity of governments to deal with a public health crisis, a key question remains: What lessons can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic for democracy’s future?

Democracy Digest highlighted four key areas that may undermine democratic functioning and open the space for more authoritarian measures to take hold in democratic states. These were centralising power, curtailing fundamental rights, expanded state surveillance of citizens, and banishing protests. In commentary published by Carnegie Endowment, Frances Z. Brown, Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers highlighted that:
“There are already signs that some governments are using the crisis to grant themselves more expansive powers than warranted by the health crisis, with insufficient oversight mechanisms, and using their expanded authority to crack down on opposition and tighten their grip on power. Thus, the pandemic may end up hardening repression in already closed political systems, accelerating democratic backsliding in flawed democracies, and further bolstering executive power in democratic countries.”

A cursory glance at different responses from a variety of authoritarian, hybrid, and democratic states show that, indeed, the pandemic has opened up the space to test not only the resilience of democracy, but to what extent power will be abused and expanded in the name of protecting citizens. Hungary, a flawed democracy now classified as a non-democratic state by the Varieties of Democracy measure, has enacted measures to allow incumbent Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time and has criminalised the spreading of false information about COVID-19, Walker wrote. South Africa has also criminalised the spread of false information related to the coronavirus, as well as nationalised all water resources current national state of disaster.

Freedom of movement has been curtailed and the South African Defence Force and Police Service now roam the streets to enforce the stay-at-home directive from the government. Military personnel monitoring and enforcing stay-at-home decrees are part of a “new normal” in a number of European and African countries, including Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, South Africa and Kenya, as countries are now at war with the virus. A number of states, including South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, have flagged human rights abuses perpetuated by the military against the very citizens they are meant to protect in this war. Freedom of assembly has been curtailed in South Africa as well as a number of other states, including Hong Kong, a country rocked by mass pro-democracy protests in recent times. A number of states have postponed elections, including France and some states in the United States of America, raising serious question around maintaining legitimacy of governments when elections cannot take place in an era of uncertainty.

Yet, despite some countries taking extraordinary measures to undermine democracy, others have taken softer measures, relying on state-civic relationships and voluntary compliance to enforce the required lockdown. South Korea had a strong focus on civil society while Taiwan advanced a political message of coordinated action by ordinary citizens and individual compliance to curb the pandemic. And, as Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highlights, “the success of governmental social control depends more on voluntary compliance than on government enforcement”. Ultimately, she argues, the successful enforcement of any measure to curb the spread of COVID-19 comes down to trust in governments and perceptions of legitimacy. If governments engender a strong perception of legitimacy in the political imaginary of people, and enjoy high levels of trust because people see the state as completely transparent and not politicising the pandemic, citizens are more willing to voluntarily cooperate with government decrees limiting freedoms.

Concomitantly, while we may assume that political trust is generally lower in authoritarian regimes, Italy continued its business as usual, ignoring social distancing and a stay-at-home directive from government, wrote Rachel Donadio, a Paris-based writer, covering politics and culture across Europe in The Atlantic. A key reason could be because 93% of Italians did not trust their parliament. Many democracies across the globe, including South Africa and the United States, face increasingly low levels of political trust because of “…polarisation, inequality, and a sense of failed promise”, according to Kleinfeld. This directly affects the ability of democracies across the globe and the African continent to effectively curtail the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, as she observes:
“Governments with high levels of trust can effectively maintain onerous lockdowns. Equally important, trust enabled some countries to convince their citizens to allow mass testing and quarantine before the virus’s effects were widely seen, allowing them to stop the spread early.”

During the lockdown, a few worrying incidences have been reported, such as the attempt to force doctors into quarantine and alleged beatings and threats in Masiphumelele, as reported by photojournalist Jacques Marais. Political trust is essential in a time of crisis. It is the only way to ensure full cooperation from citizens in a time of war with a virus. Let us hope that the need to value political trust will not become another painful lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic for the South African state, and the globe as a whole.

Author: Prof Joleen Steyn Kotze, senior research specialist in Democracy and Citizenship in the HSRC’s Democracy, Capable and Ethical State division