Liberal democracy in the time of pandemic - RSA

Liberal democracy in the time of pandemic

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  • Picture of Peter L. Biro FRSA
    Peter L. Biro FRSA
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In the pandemic, societal arrangements are summarily reordered without fuss or controversy. Peter L. Biro FRSA urges us to ensure that the provisional concessions to the emergency do not surreptitiously define a new normal.

Liberal democracy was already being stress-tested throughout the western world. Covid-19 threatens to accelerate the signs of strain and of vulnerability already present. Over the course of the last two decades, the west has experienced the piecemeal departure from norms and the erosion of institutions until now acknowledged as fundamental pillars of free and democratic societies. In some countries, this has occurred at the hands of elected demagogues who began as charismatic populist leaders. In some cases – such as Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey – they were hailed as liberal reformers but quickly departed from constitutional norms and moved to dismantle the institutional machinery of political accountability. 

This democratic backsliding has been driven by a range of factors including the dramatic increase in economic inequality, populism’s natural hostility to pluralism and to the growth of multi-ethnic, multicultural demographics, and society’s deepening polarisation, partisanship, ideological incoherence. In addition, the echo chamber culture of social media has amplified the fragmentation of discourse.

Liberal democracy’s core values and institutions have not fared especially well in the process. In many countries, press freedom has been curtailed, freedom of conscience and religion have been abridged, the independence of the judicial and prosecutorial branches of government has been weakened. In some cases voting rights have been suppressed, minority rights and pluralist principles have been set back and the war on reason, science and truth has been in the ascendant.

And then, quite suddenly, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the weight of government’s already heavy hand instantly increased exponentially. Bearing down with declarations of emergency, this has resulted in suspensions of basic civil liberties and the introduction of measures that, at least provisionally, profoundly alter the terms of the social contract that free citizens make with their governments and with one another. 

Mobility rights are curtailed by orders of ‘shelter in place’, mandatory curfews and forced quarantine. Assembly rights are suspended by orders regulating gatherings. Privacy interests are disregarded as public authorities monitor our movement using mobile data, GPS tracking, video surveillance and facial recognition technology. Property and economic rights are abridged as private businesses are forced to cease operation and as private property, including hotels and convention centres, even ships, are being provisionally expropriated to create temporary public infrastructure, such as hospitals and logistics command. Businesses are forced to repurpose for production of desperately needed equipment and other provisions to combat the pandemic. Landlords and mortgagees are restrained from evicting tenants and mortgagors.

In times of crisis, the lines between legitimate emergency measures and opportunistic abuse of public authority can get blurred. In the name of eliminating ‘elective’ or ‘unnecessary’ medical procedures to make way for essential pandemic care, access to abortion is expressly suspended (for example, in Ohio and Texas). In the name of ‘containment’ of the disease, jurisdictions are closing borders to all, including refugees and asylum seekers (as has happened in the US and several European countries). In the name of avoiding disease transmission, jurisdictions are delaying elections (again the US primaries but also in Uruguay and Indonesia) and even shutting down the courts (Israel). In the name of the emergency, elected leaders will now rule by decree (Hungary).

Few would challenge governments’ resort to extraordinary powers to contend with the existential threat to public health and to our national and global economies posed by the Covid-19 crisis. Such a threat can only be countered by the coordinated response of our governments at all levels, and this can only be effective if coerced and compelled. Paradoxical as it may seem, we tacitly agree that it is appropriate, in such circumstances, to forego many of our liberties in the interest of the greater good.

What makes the use of emergency powers extraordinary is not the nature of the crisis under the auspices of which they are invoked. It is that they call on free and democratic citizens to provisionally depart from the norms and to voluntarily forfeit the rights and privileges that found, protect, express and define their very freedom and democracy. That and the fact that they would all be quite unremarkable in dictatorships, autocracies and even in illiberal democracies. 

It seems trite to say that we must all ‘get involved’ in the civic life of our societies; while it is true, our disengagement is structural. There is an urgent need for a complex, multi-pronged approach that includes, in the first instance, a far more robust and engaging civics education, especially in the early stages of primary education when children are already capable of grasping basic notions of community and collective responsibility. In addition to revisiting economic policies in order to address the exponential increase of wealth and income inequality, we need to redouble our commitment to the pursuit of truth, in journalism and in scientific inquiry; making facts, reason and knowledge the bedrock of public policy. The task is no less than re-establishing a shared epistemic foundation on which an effective marketplace of ideas can be rehabilitated.

The fog of pandemic will lift and we will be left to assess our casualties and losses. When it does we must not shrink from bringing our most meticulous scrutiny to bear on the nature, consequences and purposes of the abridgment of rights and freedoms to which we were deemed to accede during the crisis, and our highest ideals to the reinstatement and reaffirmation of those rights and freedoms. Freedom and democracy require no less of us.


Peter L. Biro, FRSA, is the founder of, chair Emeritus of the Jane Goodall Institute Global and editor of the forthcoming book, Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship (Mosaic Press). He is also a lawyer and CEO of Newcon Optik in Toronto, Canada

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  • "In times of crisis, the lines between legitimate emergency measures and opportunistic abuse of public authority can get blurred."  That has certainly been laid bare around the world.

    Your observation remind me of Pitt the Younger's statement, “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.  It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

    I have been interested in efforts by the Council of Europe to propose new popular bodies, such as Citizen Assemblies, to bolster public oversight of governments during the coronavirus emergency.  I have no sense of whether the efforts will bear fruit, but I like to think that they create at least the possibility for coronavirus to lead to better and stronger liberal democracies in the long term.

  • Robust democracy accountable to its citizens is inherently fragile and require continual deliberate maintenance.  Part of this effort needs to come from our schools (including post-secondary) but we have been so focused on having them identify and train discipline specialists, that we have neglected to ask them to equip students with the basic concepts and skills that are needed to effectively participate in setting public policy.  The middle of a pandemic is not the time to begin to learn about exponential growth and disease transmission.

    The PostPandemic Curriculum Project (twitter @PostPanCurric) is an effort to kick-start the broad conversation needed to redefine what we want our schools to do.  Many of our most pressing policy issues require a basic understanding of (not expertise in) technical concepts.  For example: meaningful discussion of the climate crisis requires familiarity with the language and concepts related to computer modelling, thermodynamics, cognitive distortions, and genetic adaptability, among others.  A population that lacks a shared understanding of the core concepts that underlie an issue ends up talking at cross-purposes, fragmenting into hostile camps, and ultimately comes to rely on authoritarian autocrats and/or unaccountable bureaucrats to break the stalemate and make a decision.

    Changing the mandate that we give to our schools will take considerable political will.  To succeed, this project will require the involvement of many people from a very wide range of backgrounds.  Please participate in the project and spread the word.  CoVid-19 has exposed a weakness, but by enforcing social distancing has also provided some time for otherwise hyper-occupied people to join the discussion.