Are we overdue for a global pandemic

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Covid-19 and democracy

Fighting pandemics with democratic foresight

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Leininger, Julia
The Current Column (2020)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), The current column of April 27, 2020

In Germany we are currently discussing how many restrictions are necessary to protect the integrity of the individual from the pandemic and are compatible with an open society.

The Federal Constitutional Court has clearly sided with democracy by lifting a ban on protests. But what happens in states whose executive branches uncheckedly expand their power and restrict democratic freedoms? Foreign and development policy must closely monitor this danger, especially during the crisis. Because the Covid-19 pandemic is a fire accelerator for autocratization trends. As part of their Covid-19 policy, governments around the world have restricted basic democratic rights such as freedom of assembly, increased state surveillance of citizens and expanded their own power. Jörg Lau describes the pandemic in ZEIT as an opportunity for "tyrants and those who want to become one".

In 2019, for the first time since 2001, humanity experienced more autocratization than democratization processes. In Hungary, India, Brazil and Turkey, autocrats are now using the pandemic to weaken parliamentary control and massively curtail the freedom of citizens; in Rwanda, the Philippines, and Uganda the repression against opposition members is increasing. In contrast, democracies should, by definition, be better able to limit the long-term effects of pandemic-related restrictions on freedom. But there is no guarantee that they will be spared from autocrats. The economic downturn during the 2008 financial crisis had far-reaching political consequences. Several populist and nationalist governments emerged from it.

Democracies have better resources for crisis management

In order for societies to survive the pandemic peacefully, collective expertise, trust and solidarity are now required. This applies both domestically and to cooperation between countries. A combination of expertise, trust and solidarity is easier to achieve in democracies than in autocracies.

Having to make collective decisions in the light of great uncertainty is an essential characteristic of social crises. To do this, trust in political institutions and politicians is essential. Discussing factual arguments publicly, transferring interpretative sovereignty to a state institution is part of democratic weighing of interests and decision-making.
In autocracies, only one central authority has the authority to interpret public issues. Autocrats are all the more dependent on the trust of the population. If this threatens to wane, the state intensifies repressive measures. Even where populist governments rely on a "strong man" or a "strong woman", public trust can quickly wane if they do not manage the crisis credibly or do not rely on competent institutions. This is currently evident not only in the USA, but also in developing countries with weak institutions and autocratic leadership. Loss of confidence in governments can both provoke calls for more democracy and fuel political instability.

But what if neither institutions nor political elites act for the common good and cannot be corrected by the population? What if freedom of expression is restricted and broad agreement on measures to contain the health crisis is not possible? In addition, through the principle of mutual social control, autocracies erode solidarity in society as a whole. Social control is intended to prevent solidarity between groups critical of the system. If state and social control gain the upper hand, distrust begins to prevail. The state then decides whose life is to remain intact, based on its own criteria. In the short term, social control is effective against a pandemic; in the long term, it costs human lives in authoritarian contexts.

International protection of democracy - long overdue, now urgent

The pandemic has made autocratization trends more visible. Protecting and promoting democracy is therefore the order of the day for international cooperation. From a functional point of view, a global pandemic cannot be fought without transparent and trusting international cooperation. Scientific cooperation drives medical research. A transnational exchange of trustworthy empirical data is essential for this. However, open data access is seldom reliable in autocracies. In addition, an effective use of German and European development funds must be able to trust that political elites in developing countries provide appropriate information about their population.

It is not enough to promote the establishment of health systems in international development policy. Whether they work for everyone depends on whether the political order ensures equal access for all. Geostrategically, autocracies like China or Singapore with successes in combating Covid-19 can give the impression that they are more efficient and thus promote their regulatory model in developing countries. The Covid 19 crisis shows that protecting the integrity and dignity of the individual is a priority of German and European politics. Historically, this has only succeeded in democracies. To stand up for this value in the global fight against pandemics is not only a sign of solidarity, but also in the self-interest of foreign policy.


This text is part of a special series of our format The Current Column, which classifies the consequences of the Corona crisis in terms of development policy and socio-economic. You can find the other texts here on our overview page.