COVID-19 reveals the fragility of our values

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

Adam Przeworski
Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor Emeritus
Department of Politics
New York University

Synopsis: Democratic governments have implemented measures similar to those by autocracies in response to the pandemic. Are these value trade-offs temporary experiments, or will they be here to stay?

Keywords: COVID-19, liberalism, democracy, autocracy, economy, ideology

When China took aggressive measures against the spread of COVID-19, it was almost universally decried as authoritarian, brutal, invasive, or repressive. It was all that: forced quarantine, widespread use of face recognition cameras, geolocalization, spying on WeChat to follow movements and purchases, suppression of information on social media. It was unthinkable that such measures could be utilized under democracy.

Le Monde had reported that the strict confinement measures imposed by China – a non-democratic regime – on its population would be unimaginable in France. “Because the Chinese system operates in a totalitarian fashion, it could extend the quarantine to many people. No democratic state is able to implement similar measures,” declared French intellectual Guy Sorman. Ten days later, the French government issued the confinement order.

The liberal values we cherish include not only the freedom of movement but also of being able to freely associate, to join in religious observances, and to protect our privacy from the eyes of the State. Our democratic values include the freedom to choose governments through elections and to control their actions through our elected representatives and the judicial institutions.

“Patrick Henry’s exclamation – ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ – appears as an aberration.”

The lesson of the reactions to the COVID-19 crisis is that when death looms, these values retract. What that means about us as human beings is profound. Physical survival is an imperative; everything else is a luxury. Patrick Henry’s exclamation – “Give me liberty or give me death” – appears as an aberration.

Up to one billion people around the world were confined and almost all accepted it as necessary to prevent death, not only their own but also of others. Only some evangelicals in the US and Brazil insisted on placing their institutional interests above public safety; even the Polish Catholic Church abandoned the call for participation in the Easter Mass, for example. In several countries people voluntarily subjected their movements to geolocalization. Support for postponing impending elections cut across partisan lines. Parliaments delegated powers to the executives and suspend their deliberative activities. Judicial proceedings were put on hold.

Given what we know at the moment, these observations suggest no more than a hypothesis to be tested by recourse to systematic evidence. One should expect that democracies would be hesitant to limit freedoms. Specifically, that they revert to restrictions of freedom later than autocracies, later in time or relative to the danger they face.

As David Runciman observed, “Democracies do, though, find it harder to make the really tough choices. Pre-emption – the ability to tackle a problem before it becomes acute – has never been a democratic strength. We wait until we have no choice and then we adapt. That means democracies are always going to start off behind the curve of a disease like this one, though some are better at playing catch-up than others.”

But if this hypothesis is true, differences between regimes, institutional systems, political circumstances, and even idiosyncratic personalities of political leaders should all dwindle rapidly as death rates increase. Even leaders who kept assuring the public that the crisis would miraculously go away, such as US President Trump, would revert to the same measures as did China.

One would expect that some elected leaders would be more prone to adopting “totalitarian” measures than others. There are quite a few elected leaders who had been gnawing at the roots of democracy before the crisis ensued: Maduro, Ortega, Bolsonaro, Trump, Orban, Kaczy’nski, Lopez Obrador, Modi, Erdogan among them. Yet surprisingly not all of them jumped at the opportunity to deal a decisive blow to democracy: indeed, on this list only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban did. Indeed, most opted for inaction for as long as they could.

One rationale for not taking such measures is that they paralyze economic activity. We do face a trade-off, best summarized by a seller of lottery tickets in the tourist center of Mexico City: “Yes, I am afraid, but coronavirus can be resisted with medicines, hunger cannot. Either we die from the coronavirus or we die from hunger; we will have to choose.”

Left-wing governments may hesitate to paralyze the economy because of their concern for the subsistence of the most vulnerable; Right-wing because of their concern for the profitability of big business. Goldman Sachs, which has commandeered the US economy in the past years has good reasons to care about stock indices above all else.

Perhaps we should expect that the delays varied depending on the ideology of governments. Some countries have begun relaxing isolation measures earlier than others. But these differences are not due to liberal values but to purely economic considerations.

“This laboratory of experiments will permanently remain in the arsenal of governments.”

Governments which assume emergency powers assure repeatedly that they are delimited, proportional, and temporary. Thus Nicole Belloubet, the French Minister of Justice emphasized that the law which gave the government the power to rule by decree is designed only to “confront the consequences of propagation of the epidemic of COVID-19 and the consequences of measures taken to limit this propagation. None of the other fundamental rights and counterbalances essential for democratic life is touched: freedom of expression, of communication, of information, and of criticizing remain the same as in ordinary times.”

It is tempting to speculate about the long-term consequences of the current restrictions of freedoms. Living in a state of shock, we want to know what the future may bring. Newspaper columns around the world are populated by seers, from celebrities to economists and philosophers.

But we do not need a crystal ball to see what has already occurred. China, Singapore, South Korea, and Israel have already used tracking devices. A consortium of European scientists, PEPP- PT, announced on April 1 that it is at the point of developing an application that will allow sanitary authorities to follow infected people and those with whom they came into contact. MIT is developing a similar one.

Faced with danger, people accept to be subjected to such scrutiny. In Zhejiang Province of China, 90% joined the Allipay Health Code system that tracks their movements. And even the French, who are phobic about privacy, are willing to subject themselves to them: in a recent survey, 80% of respondents declared they would install such an application. This laboratory of experiments will permanently remain in the arsenal of governments. They may or may not use what they will have learned, but they will have learned.

This article is part of the series “Governance, in crisis.”  To read the other articles, click here.

Image credit: US Library of Congress

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