Save democracy from the pandemic

COVID-19 has killed millions and threatened the prospects of democracy for billions more. Since the start of 2020, the world has seen a marked expansion of government decision-making in health. Lockdowns and curfews have been introduced in many countries, and many freedoms have been taken away under the pretext of a major health threat. Health authorities and politicians referring to health authorities or exploiting them have acquired extraordinary power to regulate society as a whole, including the enforcement of mandates. A Freedom House report found that democracy weakened in 80 countries during COVID-19 and in 2020 the number of free countries fell to the lowest level in 15 years. Countries that regressed included those you would expect like China and Belarus, but also democratic bulwarks like the United States, France, Denmark and the Netherlands. The United States was listed as one of 25 countries that witnessed the the steepest declines freely. Even if the pandemic enters a less threatening endemic phase (as it may already be in several countries), the legacy of authoritarian measures and mandates may leave behind a more lasting threat to democracy.

Several governments responded to the deadly pandemic by undermining the very systems that were in place to ensure accountability and protect public health and welfare. No individual can be blamed for this – it was a systemic issue, as decisions made by one government or government agency instantly affected the decisions of others. But the result has been the restriction of basic freedoms and the normalization of scapegoating and exclusion, both historically a prelude to atrocities. While some extreme actions were justified as efforts to achieve otherwise laudable goals (such as increasing vaccination rates), the attempt to isolate large numbers of people while pushing the general population to agree on aggressive public health policies likely undermined these goals.

Some people, organizations, companies and lobbyists (or combinations thereof) have seen this crisis as an opportunity to establish a version of a desired ideological utopia, which, in reality, has only benefited a minority. zealously confident in their “truth,” “science,” or whatever name they used to legitimize blind dogma. massive workouts. Most people thrive when they can make their own decisions within the bounds of the law, even in times of crisis. But the loss of these basic freedoms has been celebrated as a victory for public health, even as the loss of fundamental freedoms has likely worsened public health outcomes in several countries.Many citizens of the United States and other democracies have seen their businesses shut down, the work of the their lives disappear and were not allowed to visit their sick or dying relatives or even to attend their funerals. The younger generations have probably been the most affected, as students have seen their schools closed and their social lives thwarted with consequences we will not fully understand for many years.

A critical mass of people, especially those who have been hardest hit by the crisis or whose concerns have been sidelined by political and health authorities, may end up concluding that their governments and leaders have let them down. Frustration can be expressed through peaceful and democratic means (elected officials are no longer in office, for example), or through riots and revolution. All over the world we have already seen examples of both. The results of such social explosions are inherently chaotic and unpredictable.

The worst way to deal with such circumstances is to redouble our efforts to replace concrete values ​​like freedom and equality with goals like safety and health under the guise of “science” and the greater good. . No reasonable person would doubt that all of these values ​​and goals are worth our efforts. But when they clash (or are portrayed as clashing), democratic societies have to make decisions about priorities. Once individual freedom has been declassified as a priority, it is difficult to return to it.

In such difficult circumstances, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of society do we want to have and what legacy do we want to leave? behind to our descendants? To stay healthy and thrive, human beings need positive reinforcement, commitment, close relationships, meaning, and a sense of accomplishment. Even if run by benevolent “experts” or agencies, top-down societies in which decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people make life harder, not easier, for these types. of life. It becomes even more difficult when small groups of people also preside over the concentration of wealth and information.

Many billionaires have enjoyed a great expansion not only of their wealth, but also of their influence over public decision-making during the pandemic. Some of them are undoubtedly brilliant human beings, well-meaning benefactors and generous philanthropists. But a big part of society’s growing distrust of authority has been a sense that elected officials and health authorities have become too dependent or susceptible to lobbying and influence from tech and financial moguls.

Concerns about the manipulation of power and influence have also been heightened by the performance of the media and social media. It is essential in free and democratic societies that the media never become the vehicle of a single, state-sanctioned official narrative to the detriment of public debate and freedom of expression. The same applies For social media: Removing content deemed “false” or “false” to limit ordinary people’s ability to judge news for themselves only fuels polarization and mistrust in the sphere public.

This is particularly important in the area of ​​scientific debate. Anyone who believes it is possible to cleanse “science” of error through brute force censorship does not understand how science works or how accurate and unbiased evidence is accumulated in the first place. The idea of ​​arbiters selecting what is correct and rejecting what is incorrect is the most alien concept possible to science. Without the ability to make mistakes or make (and improve) inaccurate assumptions, it is no science. The irony is that scientists understand (or at least should understand) and embrace (or at least should embrace) the fact that we are all floating in a sea of ​​nonsense; it is the opportunistic influencers and experts, devoid of any understanding of the scientific method, who believe in the possibility of pure, conflict-free “truth”.

The population as a whole would benefit more from scientific skepticism (which does not require a PhD) than from the purging of “biases” by false information purifiers. Teaching free citizens about the risk of multiple biases and how to prevent, detect, and avoid them is a job for educational institutions like schools and universities, not for tech companies, billionaires, federal bureaucrats, or mobs. in line. Being aware of bias has nothing to do with conspiracy theories and may be the best way to decrease the alarming number of followers of conspiracy theorists. Willingness to recognize what we don’t know creates space for respect and dignity; pseudoscientific dogmatism only leads to intimidation, violence and repression. This is as true in times of crisis and emergency as in times of peace and prosperity.

Many governments have demonstrated over the past three years that they can summarily impose decisions on free people without their consent, and can even whitewash their actions if they backfire. A balancing force is needed in a well-informed democracy to promote thoughtful discussion and the adoption of cautious and moderate policies, rather than confrontational agendas based on the proclamations of manipulated mobs. Intolerance and humiliation may seem like expedients, but tolerance and scientific humility can do even more.

As the pandemic recedes, the years to come will help determine whether we, as democratic citizens and free people, are still capable of making our own the decisions, to seek happiness and abstain from harm, without falling into the authoritarian temptations that have brought down democracies in the past.

Norma A. Roth