There are many reasons to presume that, all things being equal, rights-respecting, pluralist democracies will steward their populations through the coronavirus pandemic better than other kinds of regimes. Various pressures in well-functioning democracies are likely to steer governments toward making decisions that put the general interests of the public first by protecting their health and material well-being.
These pressures include independent media and a parliamentary opposition, which ensure that citizens are informed about the decisions governments make and the results they deliver. They also include independent courts, which guarantee that measures taken by governments genuinely contribute to the public good, as well as a functioning civil society able to make sure that public-interest issues are incorporated into decisionmaking.
As such, public debates during the pandemic could make salient to citizens the value and importance of the rights and democratic institutions that they can use to ensure their leaders pursue the public good. But whether the public recognizes this opportunity depends heavily on the narratives they hear from politicians and others who speak through the media about the relationship between rights, democracy, and public health.
Unfortunately, this relationship is commonly framed as rights and democracy versus public health. That is, citizens are often told that to guarantee public health, they must accept limitations on their rights. This framing is advanced by politicians in both good and bad faith and frequently repeated by journalists and commentators in the media.
Human rights and democracy supporters often unwittingly help cement this relationship as the only way of thinking about these principles when presenting their counterarguments. There are four common narratives from the pro-rights and pro-democracy sector that are inadvertently harmful. First, it is better to uphold democracy and suffer some health costs than live in good health but with fewer rights. Second, limitations on rights are acceptable, but the line between freedoms and health is being drawn in the wrong place. Third, citizens can accept temporary limitations but must get their democracies back as soon as possible. Fourth, some regimes are acting in bad faith to use the coronavirus as cover to introduce or consolidate authoritarianism.
These are all valid and important points. But it is problematic if the bulk of the public debate about rights, democracy, and health cements the perception that the relationship boils down to a binary choice. Decades of research into the psychological origins of political attitudes show that if people feel that their health is in jeopardy, this will be perceived as a threat that will cause significant segments of the population to endorse authoritarian attitudes. These attitudes include accepting restrictions on civil liberties and democratic participation. If societies are presented with a choice between protecting health and protecting rights and democracy, health tends to win.
The current unhelpful narrative follows hot on the heels of other, similarly damaging conceptualizations of rights and democracy. During the so-called war on terror, rights were represented as incompatible with security. And over the last decade, movements with authoritarian agendas have persistently portrayed rights activists and the causes and groups they fight for as threatening to culture, religion, public safety, and economic prosperity. If the public is continuously bombarded with these kinds of narratives, support for democratic freedoms will be weakened.
It is encouraging to see some positive narratives being developed, in particular on the role that a free and independent press plays in keeping governments on their toes by asking difficult questions, exposing mistakes, and debating the range of policy choices. The same needs to be said for other elements of a properly functioning democracy.
For example, similar narratives should explain the role that civil society plays in channeling the views of relevant people (such as health workers and educators) and other public-interest issues (such as anticorruption) into government decisionmaking and public debate. There should also be greater attention on the roles of a healthy parliamentary opposition and independent judges in ensuring that the executive does not overly restrict freedoms. And the narrative needs to be more strongly based on rights—such as the right to health, which, if properly implemented, would have put health systems in a more robust position before the pandemic arrived.
If the public does not understand the importance and value of democratic freedoms, it becomes easier for political movements with authoritarian ambitions to misrepresent and, ultimately, dismantle those freedoms. By framing freedoms as tools to navigate the pandemic, societies not only improve their well-being now but also contribute to building the public support needed to sustain rights and the institutions that protect them in the long run.
Israel Butler is the head of advocacy at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.