Democracy in the Time of COVID-19

Georgetown University’s Administration is working towards managing school life now that COVID-19 has arrived in Washington, D.C. Like other universities across the country, Georgetown has cancelled upcoming events and shifted meetings and classes to virtual platforms through the end of the semester. That might hearten executives at video-conferencing platforms like Zoom, but here at Georgetown, the community is struggling to maintain continuity in the face of shifting logistics. At Democracy & Society, we’re gearing up to publish our 17th annual print issue. This year’s guiding theme, Resistance and Retaliation, is made all the more relevant by the developing COVID-19 pandemic. Forthcoming in mid-may, the volume explores the dynamics between liberalization movements, rights, justice, and entrenched power structures. Resistance and retaliation may form the dynamo of politics, but there’s nothing like a good old fashioned public health crisis to give us some fresh perspective on power and opposition. 

Many local and national governments around the world have already announced states of emergency, and others will soon follow. How will a state of emergency affect democratic rights, especially those protecting individual and collective resistance, in the time of COVID-19? 

Without being flippant about everything that’s going on, we should afford some credit to human  resilience when recounting previous outbreaks. The biggest lesson we can learn from past pandemics is that we can survive them. Comparison to other outbreaks in the past can be disaggregated along lines of death tolls, mortality demographics, places of origin, etc. For example, unlike COVID-19, the 1918 pandemic of the H1N1 virus affected infants and children under the age of five, adults between twenty and forty years of age, and individuals over sixty-five years old. Coronavirus disproportionately affects immunocompromised individuals and people over sixty five, which is a comparatively smaller demographic that we can focus on protecting. What H1N1 and coronavirus do have in common is that they both are said to have originated from wild animals; the H1N1 has avian origins, and the speculation is that COVID-19 permeated the animal-human barrier through close contact with a pangolin at a wet market in Wuhan (which the Chinese government is now starting to dispute in an attempt to reclaim the narrative). What connects H1N1 and coronavirus is that epidemiologists, having learned lessons from previous iterations of flu outbreaks, have been trying to fund vaccine studies for decades, but to no avail. Due to a lack of government funding and an apathetic pharmaceutical industry, scientists have not been able to develop a vaccine, which has resulted in many preventable deaths and incapacitated thousands. At the risk of running afoul of Milton Friedman, this is something that the market did not manage, much to its own disservice. Governments and pharmaceutical companies failed to invest in something that scientists have been warning us about needing for decades. It could now bring the global economy to a grinding halt. What we are going through, the distancing, the isolation, the fear, should give our lawmakers and the powers that be in Big Pharma boardrooms a moment to consider the implications of actions taken solely in the interest of “the market.” In the interim, states around the world are doing what they can to contain and weather this crisis. 

“Due to a lack of government funding and an apathetic pharmaceutical industry, scientists have not been able to develop a vaccine, which has resulted in many preventable deaths and incapacitated thousands.”

As of March 20th, China, South Korea, Spain, Italy, France, and the United States of America have all declared states of emergency. Many other countries across the world are following suit as the virus encroaches on their borders. Outside of China, the United States, Germany, Spain, Iran, and Italy are bearing the worst of the rapid spread of coronavirus. Without an in-depth study of global testing infrastructure however, it is impossible to say what the spread or reach of this disease has been, especially in countries that do not have the means to conduct large-scale testing. 


During this time of crisis, the relationship between governments and its people are of even more importance than under normal circumstances. To streamline the pace at which essential decisions are made, government officials are strengthening their decision-making powers. Thoughtful and decisive direction on the part of our leaders will determine how we will weather the outbreak, and lay the groundwork for how we handle similar crises in the future. As citizens, it is important for us to understand and leverage the responsibilities that our leaders have towards us, and our rights as they are relevant to the situation. This can be challenging to confront in isolation or without resources, but thankfully, a recently-published joint statement from Amnesty International, CIVICUS, and Transparency International offers some guidance for how leaders can move forward in a responsive and accountable way while honoring human rights. It provides some much needed insight that could help leaders and citizens transform some of this tension into cooperation. 

Some situations that are arising between citizens and government, however, seem more fraught with tension and less clear in their potential for resolution. After the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors in China who tried to sound the alarm on COVID-19 despite repeated threats from his government, questions about China’s potential for democracy are evolving. Dr. Li’s death opened the floodgates for an outpouring of grief over the loss of someone prized by the Chinese public for his unwavering personal devotion to civic duty. This expression of grief on the part of netizens was accompanied by sharp and unprecedented levels of criticism for the government’s response in the crucial early stages when it chose to lock down all channels of information and stem public awareness when this pandemic was emerging.

“The coronavirus pandemic is giving us insight into the kind of power that citizens are capable of exercising: to hold governments accountable in a time of crisis.”

Wuhan, in the hard-hit Hubei province, remains under city-wide quarantine that applies to its 11 million residents. With 46 million Chinese country-wide that are currently in quarantine, it bears the grim distinction of being the largest of its kind in modern times. Starting last month in early February, pictures, videos, and first-hand accounts were spreading like wildfire in Chinese cyberspace and abroad of conditions in state-mandated quarantine areas. Buildings were being welded shut to prevent infected occupants from leaving. Individuals running a temperature were pulled out of their homes kicking and screaming, forced into unmarked vans by people in low-grade hazmat suits, flanked by security officers. There was limited recourse available for Chinese citizens’ grievances, and the frustration accompanying those internet posts was palpable. While we can speculate as to how institutionally-entrenched and parchment-placed avenues to recourse are in China, the expression of criticism that millions of Chinese people engaged in during the outbreak have demonstrated the limitations of their government’s brand of authoritarianism. By angling the Chinese Communst Party’s governing model as a legitimate alternative to democracy with parallel-running organizations and entities, the Chinese regime may have inadvertently opened up, giving the impression that they are accountable to acting in their citizens’ interests, albeit to a limited extent. So as far as autocracies go, this may be a dreaded rocky start to expanded rights of expression in China.

In Egypt, renowned writer Ahdaf Soueif and fellow activists have been arrested and since released on bail after protesting rampant medical neglect in Egyptian prisons and calling for the immediate release of prisoners at high risk of mortal peril from the coronavirus. In Iran, Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights for the state, made a request to the government to temporarily release all political prisoners. The Iranian government has since released 85,000 prisoners, many of whom were detained for their protest of the regime. COVID-19 seems to be having a curious influence on strict and authoritarian regimes as death tolls rise and healthcare infrastructures are overwhelmed. People, under duress of pandemic, are galvanized in an unforeseen manner while their governments are gravely concerned by what that momentum could bring. 

“People, under duress of pandemic, are galvanized in an unforeseen manner while their governments are gravely concerned by what that momentum could bring.”

The truth remains that the coronavirus has been devastating. There have been almost 355,000 reported infections, with over 15,000 deaths worldwide. Schools are closed, people are working from home. In the US, a White House administration that traditionally chooses to give tax breaks and outright preference to the country’s wealthiest, is now making public statements about pausing interest on student loans (which isn’t as universally applicable as it is made out to be), temporarily suspending foreclosures and evictions, and even distributing cash to many of the country’s struggling individuals and households. We have not, however, left the territory of preferential treatment; the administration is still pushing for a payroll taxcut that would disproportionately favor the top 20% economic bracket of Americans, and it is being marketed as a social good to counter the consequences of pandemic. Regimes, democratic and otherwise, seem truly intimidated by their people in such a crisis as we are going through now, but it does not mean that underlying motivations have changed. This makes for a rather depressing observation about the exercise of power as we know and perform it: that fear of the people rather than care for them seems to be a better short term motivator for many governments to act in their citizens’ interest, and that optics may matter more than reality. 

While Iran is digging mass graves and spreading misinformation about the country’s death toll (in no small part due to crippling economic sanctions over decades that have compromised their ability to develop healthcare infrastructure), it is hard to imagine a consolidated modern democracy doing so. However, it should be noted that COVID-19 is bringing up some important questions about the balance that governments need to strike when exercising power. On Wednesday, March 18, Hubei Province in China announced that they have no new cases, a landmark achievement in China’s fight for containment. But the outcry over the government’s actions in the initial stages of the pandemic is a genie that cannot be put back into its bottle. Chinese people now know what it is to express dissatisfaction with one’s government on a public platform and not face wide-scale consequences for doing so. They have demonstrated with this act of defiance that they believe, like many people the world over, that the Chinese are entitled to a government that acts with the people’s interest at heart. It is, after all, governed by the People’s Party.  

The coronavirus pandemic is giving us insight into the kind of power that citizens are capable of exercising: to hold governments accountable in a time of crisis. Yet, it would be difficult to not be conflicted about the Yellow Vest movement in France, for example, where protestors are in open defiance of the national lockdown and ban on gatherings of over 100 people. We need accountability in times of crisis, but we also need cooperation with decision-makers. It is a confounding idea, the notion of where the line between demanding accountability and defying governance to individual and public detriment can be. Along with this virulent contagion, we are living through the accompanying social and political pathology: sick people are being violently removed and detained, citizens are defying lockdowns to continue protests, governments are digging mass graves to hide bodies and misleading the public about death tolls. This crisis is showing us the kind of care we are capable of, and the kind of force we are willing to exert both as citizens and leaders. The modern world, governance, and democracy are not going to be the same, but only time can tell us exactly how they will be transformed by COVID-19. 

Ruby Karki is currently in the MA in Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown. Ruby is also one of our Assistant Editors here at Democracy & Society. She has a BA in International Studies with a minor in Philosophy. Her interests include Civil Society engagement, Development, Political Theory, and the Philosophy of Classical Antiquity.