The infected democracy

Illustration by Andrea Ucini. The Economist

By Xavier Rodríguez Franco.

With the accelerated global expansion of the coronavirus, many governments have the chance to anounce emergency states, including the opportunity to restrict civil liberties and reduce capacities of political control to other branches within their political system. One of them are Parliaments, or in federal countries, restrictions have been implemented banning the autonomy of regional and local governments. The management of this crisis in many of these cases demonstrate how fragile democracy remains and how easy widespread mistrust; specially now in this inexorable need for international coordination and open dialogue between politicians, doctors, workers, businessmen and many others. Framed in this general distrust environment, we could affirm that the main symptom of this pandemic, which also afflicts democracy, has been access to public information.

We live in an unprecedented situation, especially difficult and uncertain due to many unknowns yet to be solved about the biological behavior of this COVID-19 and its viral patterns. Hard context continues working for doctors and virologists, also considering geo-demographic and the health system capacities of each country, public information not always available and freely released. In this complicated scenario, working with non-conclusive perspectives has an extra complexity that few governments have decided to recognize and responsibly to communicate to their citizens. The chronic situation among populist leadership especially, always addicted to the short term measures, the «blind faith» solutions and the dangerous trust excesses of their wishful thinking.

In this global panoramic vier, in this global panoramic view distrust of official numbers is combined with unwanted suspending of productive activities. Within many countries it has been the desired scenario for the spread of threats against the independent press and scientific voices, as well as the censorship of political deliberations and the resurgence of autarkic and nationalist discourses. Aspects so widespread among nations that they seem to compete dangerously with the number of infections of the virus worldwide.

The value of the parliament continuity. The democratic health really matters

In the functional continuity of Parliaments, the protection of the free independant press and deliberative spaces with expert knowledge resides a valuable portion of the collaborative network needed for better responses and management of this worldwide health crisis. Therefore, it is important to recognize that public health is also at stake in democratic health. Indeed, if democracy continues to sicken and reduce its mechanisms of democratic control, minimizing all the stages of institutional dialogue, the possibilities of coordinating strategies between social actors and the adoption of policies with a scientific support are simply remote. We have already seen the high price that the entire planet is paying for the secrecy in the handling of information during the first weeks, when the first outbreaks of the disease occurred, as well as the persecution and imprisonment of cientifics, medical personnel and journalists. This is s especially true in dictatorial regimes like China, Venezuela, Iran, among many others.

The complexity in which humanity is involved at this time, demands higher levels of coordination, dialogue and professional assessment of risks, rather than acts of faith, ideological mandates, forced silences and suppression of any focus of criticism. Therefore, a more cognitive government is required and ready to learn, accountable to their failures, that talk directly to citizens as adults and not as an aggregation of parishioners with the sole duty to believe thoughtlessly in the leader. In this context, politics, democracy and its institutions as we know them, like any other social order, are undergoing a turbulent transition towards other forms of action, in which technology and digital connectivity are playing a very important role. Unique situation in which the citizenship should not be exempt from participating either.

The technological transition in parliaments.

In the same way that many businesses have done, the expansion of COVID-19 has imposed the adoption of technological measures that allow telematic working and the acceleration of the automation of production processes, governments have also -and not free of resistance- had to assume the technological transition. An example of this, has been the forced implementation of the electronic parliament concept and the remote holding of plenary and committees sessions in many parliaments across the world. While the measures of social distancing, suspension of transport and confinement around the world pose significant limitations, they should not mean the suspension of parliamentary administration. Indeed, recent months have posed a significant number of telematic resources of parliaments for the management of this pandemic. A good symptom of democratic recovery and a progressive return to collective intelligence, collaborative learning and multilateral coordination that humanity so desperately needs.

In this context is necessary to remember that parliaments are the quintessential pluralistic mechanism of government control. Whilst parliaments remains in office with their «open» sign on, it fulfills the role of guaranteeing the rule of law, even in moments of national upheaval and exceptional restrictions on individual liberties. Consequently, it is necessary that the continuity in its operation -with the corresponding sanitation measures- allows to generate the trust that citizens need in their institutions, constituencies and their representatives at this threatening moment.

Therefore, it is essential that its commissions and committees keep their permanent dialogue open with scientists, experts and health personnel that allow the adoption and communication of measures with a scientific sense, taking into account the socioeconomic complexity of each country. Therefore, the partisan perspective of minorities versus majorities, opposition against government, right against left, must be overcomed by a sense of unity of efforts and constructive vigilance of political performance, especially at this time while we are still having questions about the biological nature of the virus, and still dealing the preservation of lives without vaccines and effective medical treatments.

In short, it is in the full functioning of the deliberative instances of every society, where the present and the future of democracy are also at stake. In turn, protecting the necessary conditions for scientific research and the adoption of measures to safeguard human rights and minimize the global effects of this pandemic more effectively.

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A especial thanks to the reviewers of this article:

  • Mary Canales
  • Iliana Rodríguez
  • Drew Braxa

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