“Not liking the look of this”,tweeted Helen Branswell, infectious diseases and global health reporter for Stat News. She was referring to one of the first news articles headlining a viral pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China.
Nearly two years on, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the globe in its many variants. While the pandemic’s impact on the economy and healthcare infrastructure was evident from the get-go, studies are only now uncovering the damage done to global democracy levels.
The ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ report demonstrated an accelerated decline in global democracy levels in 2020. This has often been attributed to lockdowns, travel bans and other restrictions of liberties necessitated by the situation. However, it is easy to use these restrictions as a convenient scapegoat, allowing us to ignore greater threats to democracy cropping up within the last year.
When we pause to consider why people of colour in the United States experience higher mortality rates, or how hyper-nationalism is jeopardising the state of healthcare in Kashmir, we realise that the COVID-19 crisis is riddled with disproportionate suffering at the expense of minorities.
Racism, inequality and nationalism have become obvious threats to democracy in the wake of this pandemic. Without being addressed, these problems will continue to erode the democratic rights of minorities, and as a consequence, the pillars of democracy within nations as a whole.
Racism During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Throughout the course of the pandemic, racism has reared its ugly head, manifesting in the form of racially provoked attacks on those believed to be responsible for spreading the virus. Many of these hate crimes are being perpetrated against minority groups, such as East Asians in North America and the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Wrongfully associated with spreading the virus, the abuse of racial slurs including ‘coronavirus’ and ‘Chinese virus’, has become a common reality for East Asians in many countries. The United States had reported a record-high number of hate crimes against Asians in the year 2020. At the start of the pandemic, the advocacy group Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate, set up an online self-reporting tool for these crimes, and consequently reported more than 9,000 anti-Asian hate incident reports from March 19, 2020, to June 31, 2021.
The attacks have spurred outrage and fear among Americans.
“I’m trying to keep it together,” said Sookyung Oh, a director of the advocacy group, the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.
“I feel hurt. Asian American people feel hurt.”
In Myanmar, a similar pattern emerged with the Rohingya community being painted as harbingers of the virus. Aung San Suu Kyi had said the government would “severely” punish anyone crossing into Myanmar illegally, implying heavy action taken against Rohingya refugees returning to Myanmar from Bangladesh during the pandemic.
The government’s anti-Rohingya rhetoric fanned the flames of racist ideologies on the ground. According to Kyaw Win, Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network, the Rohingya and even others from the Rakhine state, began being actively targeted by the community.
“Shops don’t want to sell food to them,” he said. “Neighbours inform authorities which houses belong to the Rohingya. It’s getting difficult for the Rakhine to survive.”
A Pandemic of ‘Inequality’
The suffering due to racist ideologies does not stop there.
Day-to-day prejudice against marginalised communities causes ripple effects in the quality of education, housing and healthcare available to them in the long run. Examples of these deep-rooted flaws were illuminated when it was clear the pandemic was causing uneven suffering amongst minorities. Disproportionate deaths and caseloads between ethnic groups, as well as disparities in access to healthcare and social safety nets, have had the COVID-19 crisis adequately dubbed a ‘pandemic of inequality’.
In the United States, an overwhelming number of cases and deaths have been reported from communities of people of colour. The data obtained throughout the crisis makes clear the impact on Black, Latino and Indigenous Americans, in comparison to their White counterparts. According to research conducted by the APM Research Lab across all fifty states: as compared to White Americans, fatalities for Indigenous people are 3.3 times more likely to occur, while that of Black and Latino Americans are 2 and 2.4 times more, respectively.
The Centre for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study also reported a decrease in life expectancy across the US in the year 2020, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For White Americans, the decrease was a year and a half, but for Black and Hispanic Americans, the drop was a full three years.
“The disproportionality is real, the numbers are sobering and stark,” said Dr Clyde Yancy, a cardiologist and professor at Northwestern University, upon reviewing similar data from 40 states, last year.
Hence, for many, the crisis was a solemn reminder of the discrimination that runs deep in the heart of the American healthcare system.
For generations, this ‘medical racism’ has created a sense of mistrust towards health authorities. During the pandemic, this lack of confidence in the services available to minorities has caused considerable lags in vaccination rates amongst Black and Latino Americans. The CDC reported that among the population, about 26 per cent of Latinos and 14 per cent of Black Americans have received at least a single dose; a stark contrast against the percentage for White Americans, 60 per cent.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many members of minority communities work frontline jobs in the service sector – a fact that is also no coincidence. Years of segregated housing between White and Black communities, for example, led to segregated education, which in turn created disparities in the long-term career options available to them.
“Race doesn’t put you at higher risk. Racism puts you at higher risk,” said Dr Camara Jones, the former president of the American Public Health Association. She was speaking to Scientific American about discrimination and its role during the pandemic.
“We’re [Black Americans] more likely to be infected because we are more exposed and less protected, and once infected, we’re more likely to die because we’re more burdened by chronic diseases, with less access to health care.”
According to Jones, the much-needed solution is to extend further support to communities at higher risk. Increased access to personal protection equipment (PPE), testing sites and implementing hazard pay at workplaces should be prioritised. She also emphasised that states should be publishing case statistics disaggregated by race to know where more resources should be allocated.
The Threat to Democracy
The active denial of the civil rights of minorities has been highlighted throughout the COVID-19 crisis, such as in the cases of the Rohingya as well as Asian, Black and Latino Americans, and the inadequacy of services available to them. Racism also erodes the social cohesion integral to democratic countries.
It is widely understood by political scientists that for a democracy to thrive, a certain level of interpersonal trust or shared values should exist. Many of these theorists, such as Almond and Verba, Martin Lipset, and Robert Dahl, argue that general “beliefs in equality”, commitment against “conflictual elements”, a “harmonistic structure” of society and political elites, as well as the trustworthiness and benevolence of individuals in society, are needed to confer stability and legitimacy to a democratic regime.
The deep-rooted structural inequality that results from these racial biases tends to polarise society; widening the gap between rich and poor, privileged and discriminated against. The rest of society is distanced from the elites, and their preferences now go ignored and under-represented.
This lack of representation thus poses a threat to democracy, under which as many preferences as possible should be accounted for during policy-making. The relationship between inequality and politics is thus: the higher the inequality, the further concentrated the power of the rich, and the more likely we are to move away from democracy.
Identifying and implementing ways of managing these faultlines in society, therefore, may be a valuable long-term solution to strengthening democracy, while also avoiding the fallout from its eroding further due to them.
Nationalism today is no longer affiliated with the democratic revolutions of the past, where liberation and equality were at the forefront of the agenda. Today, the brand of nationalism that is most apparent is hyper-nationalism — a more aggressive and exclusionary ideology focused on rigid ideas of territory, authority, centralisation and capitalism. Think of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist government that has increasingly marginalised and endangered the lives of already disadvantaged minority groups in India.
When asked about the COVID-19 measures implemented, one humanitarian worker commented: “The only transition has been the change of terminologies (from the ‘shutdown’ in 2019 to the current pandemic ‘lockdown’). It is all aimed at crippling dissent.”
“This pandemic has been an extension of the same lockdowns; nothing has changed on the ground. People are still being harassed and journalists are being muzzled.”
Back in August 2019, Modi’s government stripped Kashmir of its constitutional autonomy and instilled direct governance from Delhi. Kashmir is a Muslim-majority territory; the biggest minority group in India. The Indian government had been slowly releasing detained citizens and politicians, lifting the restrictions on communication and movement that was imposed in 2019, when the pandemic struck, causing a full return into lockdown. However, unlike the rest of India, which could shift their life online, 2G internet made this impossible. In Kashmir, students were unable to continue their education, businesses were unable to adapt, and doctors were unable to keep up with the latest information about COVID-19. The state was stagnated.
Since the pandemic hit, the government has reinstated the previous non-existent internet connection with 2G internet in January 2020, with 4G internet-only returning in early 2021. Still, the 18 months of no internet caused the economy to lose US$7 billion (S$9.42 billion).
Doctors, journalists and citizens were also threatened with jail time and punished for dissent or voicing out concerns. One doctor has been transferred to a remote hospital in Jammu after publically demanding protective equipment. The Indian government also banned NGOs from supplying oxygen, which worsened the region that is already suffering from the already weakened healthcare infrastructure.
Through the course of 2020, India slipped in Freedom House’s democracy rankings from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’, as a result of such crackdowns. In the same year, the World Press Freedom Index reported that India ranks 142 out of 180 countries for press freedom, behind Afghanistan and South Sudan.
The pandemic also saw nationalist leaders capitalising on the crisis in order to consolidate their power. Multiple violent clampdowns on protests and mass demonstrations across democracies were observed as governments cited violations of COVID-19 safety measures, breaching international guidelines for the restriction of freedoms during the pandemic.
An example of this would be found in Uganda, where the government arrested presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), and clamped down on many protests in support of him, citing violation of COVID-19 measures. The authorities’ use of teargas and live bullets left 16 dead.
“So when he (Kyagulanyi) got there, he and his team were arrested. They (the authorities) didn’t tell them why they are arresting them, where they are taking them and all of that…” said Joel Senyonyi, a spokesman for Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform.
“It’s a continued intimidation. The state is trying to slow us down, to intimidate our candidates and citizens. But we are determined. We are very strong. We are going all the way. We must remove the dictatorship.”
Yet at the same time, the authorities allowed large pro-government rallies to take place. The Ugandan public expressed outrage at the government’s clear bias towards pro-government sentiments, as it became clear the government intended to capitalise on the COVID-19 platform to push for nationalist agendas and suppress democratic sentiments, effectively using a nationwide problem to appropriate control and stir political unrest.
Modi is not the sole world leader propagating nationalist ideologies, nor is India the only country experiencing a rise in nationalism. The BBC News and the Centre for American Progress listed 23 countries including the US, UK, Germany, and Sweden as having exhibited the rise of hyper-nationalism and right-wing nationalism in recent years, through a rise in voter support for conservative or nationalist parties.
It is interesting to note that even well-established democracies like the US, UK, and Germany, and flourishing and ideal democracies like Sweden, are not immune to the rise of hyper-nationalism and right-wing movements. The Peninsula Foundation noted that “the endemic threat to the norms and values of the democratic order is most likely internal”.
Democracy by “the people”
Hyper-nationalism polarises society and creates within it, the same deep-rooted divisions that racism and structural inequality perpetuate. The situation in Kashmir exemplified the way it may strip one of the basic civil rights of safety and political equality.
Abraham Lincoln’s well-known definition of democracy is “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Today, the idea of “the people” has evolved over the years, as globalisation and migration have diversified societies to be more multicultural and multi-religious. Nationalism tends to favour a certain group at the expense of another. It capitalises on rigid, old-fashioned ideas of citizenship in a country, where only a certain ethnicity or religious group is deemed to be rightful citizens of the country, and minorities are penalised. This idea of selectively choosing ‘who belongs to your country’ fuels the narrative of hyper-nationalism and right-wing nationalism — violating democracy ‘of the people’.
“Either the pandemic teaches us to be more globalised in politics, to stop the next pandemic, to cooperate, to restore global growth,” said Dr Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford, “or we get more national, in which case we’re in a downward spiral.”
Conclusion: Democracy across fault lines
The ultimate answer to why these issues spell trouble for democratic consolidation lies within democracy’s cornerstone emphasis on the protection of rights, and its promise of political equality. Protection of these civil rights, such as the right to vote, the right to access public facilities, education and government services, ensure that a free and fair environment is created, in which democracy can thrive.
This rings especially true when one notices that the upward trends for nationalism, racism, health, income and housing inequality are consistent with the downward trend in democracy over time.
The pandemic has brought to the surface the divisions entrenched within modern democracies. Understanding how these fault lines in society pose a threat to democracy, and the importance of addressing them may thus pose a possible solution to bailing nations out of their democratic declines.