March 27, 2020

Three ways the spread of COVID-19 can help institutions reconnect with citizens

This article was first posted on Encompass.

The spread of COVID-19 and its disregard for international borders represents both an unprecedented opportunity and a challenge to the world as we know it. Never like now in post-war history, has the debate about isolationism and international cooperation been more relevant. And never like now, is it dramatically clear that only by engaging in extensive diplomacy and alliance building will the world be able to overcome the crisis. Connections need to be reinforced both horizontally: between and amongst nations, and vertically: between governments and their citizens and between member states and the organisations they are parties of. COVID-19 offers a precious opportunity to revive the way institutions connect to the citizens they represent or serve, as they will face dramatic choices between reality and morality, values and interests. How they will respond, will design the political contours of the future of democratic decision-making both nationally and internationally.

The reaction to the spread of the virus challenges democratic modes of governance worldwide: international crises such as wars and pandemics have often resulted in fundamental changes in the modes of political organization. Comparisons have been made between the responses to COVID-19 by authoritarian systems such as in China and those based on the western principles of democracy, founded on the protection of individual rights. Countries whose state apparatus is geared towards exerting control of their citizens have been able to impose swift and encompassing restrictive measures to curb the spread of the pandemic. Western European democracies such as Italy, France and Spain, that were hit later by the virus, had to grapple with the political dilemma of how to adopt and communicate very harsh practices of isolating the population by restricting their citizens’ freedom of movement. The EU and its member states followed suit by moving to close borders.

Few may realise that article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees the security and liberty of persons, stipulates at point 5.e that persons can be lawfully deprived of such rights if it is justified by the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law. As governments in Europe and elsewhere had to impose travel and border restrictions both to people and to commercial exchanges, the difference in opposing systems of organised authority to manage people and resources, became dramatically clear. On the one hand, the democratic model based on individual rights, and on the other authoritarian models of surveillance and control (including through the use of artificial intelligence) and more intrusive state control on the distribution of resources and crucially, information. Suddenly, the apparent efficiency of more authoritarian regimes in controlling the spread of the virus, leads admirers to gloss over the disregard for civil liberties these systems are based upon.

In Europe and elsewhere, undemocratic forces have worked for years to undermine the authority and legitimacy of experts and critical thinkers because they expose incompetent leadership and demand effective solutions to social problems. It is not by chance that China has silenced the first doctor to warn of the impending epidemic, by forcing him to sign a document where he admitted disrupting public order. At the other end of the world, in the US, the President used other methods to dismiss the legitimacy of experts’ claims by issuing generic reassurances of strength and preparedness. A similar approach by executives has been noticed in populists Brazil and Mexico.

And yet, these methods have also backfired and could be an opportunity for revitalizing democracy: massive protests on social media after the death of the Chinese doctor, forced the highest anti-corruption agency in the country to investigate the behavior of the police in Wuhan. And in the US the electorate’s blind need for reassurance by demagogic authorities has been contrasted with demand for more serious information and more effective preventative measures by the government. For the first time in American history, this has forced the Senate to draft a law that would inject massive financial resources in the health system and the economy. In the UK, citizens have questioned Boris Johnson’s approach to so called ‘herd immunity’ and its applicability to the Coronavirus epidemic. These are all encouraging examples of social mobilisation that democratic governments could capitalize on by legitimising bottom up demands for reform and building more structured alliances with grass roots mobilisation.

Public support for the EU project will depend on its crisis response showing benefits for citizens: the scale of the crisis and its extension across borders, could be an opportunity for governments to overcome their differences and find commonality of purpose in fighting the spread of the pandemic. However, populists and demagogues may also use this moment to discredit international responses and strengthen the view that only national governments are well placed to protect their citizens. In this context, international organisations provide the fora where debates can lead to consensus-building on the appropriate collective response to a shared problem of such global scale. The international nature of the crisis makes it clear that national responses alone are not sufficient to overcome it and that cooperation is required, for example to enforce border restrictions, or to share best practices to contrast the disease or to exchange medical equipment, research and capabilities.

Initial uncoordinated and unclear responses by the EU and its member states have met with criticism and recalled the EU’s failure to deal with other shared crises such as the financial crisis of 2008 and its impact particularly on its Southern economies or the migration crisis of 2015 that exposed a historical low in European solidarity. European citizens hope to be in a case of ‘third time lucky’ but the EU’s capability to respond to a health crisis of continental proportions, has surfaced more lack of coherence than coordination. Member states have disagreed on the best way to enforce restrictive measures on the movements of their citizens or goods to control contagion, and highlighted discrepancies in their health policies. Not to speak of the (perhaps understandable) drive to requisition the production of medical supplies or (less understandably) stop orders of medical equipment destined to one country at their borders, for political reasons.

As the economic consequences of prolonged lock-down and workers’ immobility, financial market losses and production paralysis become clearer, governments in Europe will have to share the burden of repairing the economy. And that’s where the real test of support for the European project lies. Unless the benefits of participating in it is perceptible by European citizens, it is likely to receive a deadly blow.

At a time when every weakness in internationally coordinated responses will be exploited by populist regimes to position their nationalist agendas, it is imperative that the EU develops and effective strategy of communication and outreach to citizens. The publicity bestowed on Russian and Chinese donations of medical supplies to Europe brings hope, but let’s not be fooled, it engages the EU on a battle to win the hearts and minds of its citizens. And it’d better come up on top.

Multilateral organisations will have to boost the solidarity dividend of the pandemic at micro-level: European governments have taken measures to provide some breathing space for families, particularly with debts: for example, France has adopted a moratorium on the payment of utilities such as electricity and water; Belgium has delayed the payment of home mortgages at no increased interest costs; the UK is considering doing the same but with increased interest rates as repayments start.

International agencies have an important role to play in devising solutions to the multifaceted consequences of the health crisis and raising awareness on best practices. The OECD has issued recommendations on a range of tax policies and administrative measures governments could consider as part of their immediate response to alleviate pressures on households. These include: waiving of payroll-related taxes and social security contributions (paid by the employer or the self-employed) to reduce labour costs; providing tax concessions for workers in health and other emergency-related sectors; adjusting delays for tax declarations and payments requirements; deferring payments of VAT, customs or excise duties for imported items (e.g. food, medicine, capital goods), and adoption of targeted measures to limit fraud risks; deferring or adjusting the required advance payments of business income taxes taking into account the expected impact on business turnover (instead of using last year’s sales or profits as a proxy).

These tax relief measures would have to be funded nationally and might result in increased national deficits and inflation. The European Central Bank would have to step in with abundant liquidity and measures to prevent distress in sovereign bond markets. And yet this would only work in the short term. In the longer haul, a reflection is needed on the role and responsibility of politics in regulating the economy and a critical examination of the belief that markets are self-regulating mechanisms. This is clearly disputable when crises impact whole social and economic systems.

The effects of the pandemic has brought to stark light the cracks in the liberal economic model as citizens bear the consequences of privatising public sectors like health and education. Although significant, these measures would not address the situation of those most marginalised in the economy like the unemployed, women, migrants, aged workers, and those engaged in weakly regulated sectors such as digital platform workers. Longer-term economic measures will have to be based on more progressive economic thinking.

This is where institutions both at national and supranational level, can benefit from proposals generated from the bottom-up. The EU should support the establishment of national progressive coalitions to inform economic decision-making. Consultations could be organised with trade unions, women and youth movements, local council representatives, social movements and faith-based organisations. More participatory and broader based private-public partnerships should become the norm as private business draws lessons from re-orienting their productions.

Marta Martinelli is a steering committee member of WIIS Brussels and heads the EU external relations team of the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI).

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Marta Martinelli

Marta Martinelli

WIIS Brussels Steering Committee Member

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