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The Nikkei View

Don't make democracy a casualty of virus war

Checks and balances more essential than ever in age of nationalism and populism

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly gave the military and the police the green light to shoot civilians who violate lockdown orders.   © Reuters

The battle against the coronavirus has proved a challenge for democratic nations around the world, as leaders resort to extraordinary measures to contain the outbreak. American and European heads of government have pushed up against the limits of their authority, justifying the actions as wartime leadership, but have struggled to act agile enough within the scope of their power.

Meanwhile, Communist Party-ruled China quickly put severe measures into place, sometimes at the expense of liberty and private rights. This has led to claims that authoritarian governments are more successful at dealing with the pandemic.

But that is not true. Nondemocratic countries have suffered higher mortality rates than democracies in recorded epidemics since 1960, an analysis by The Economist magazine found, with curbs on public information a possible factor.

Even today, authoritarian regimes in Russia and Iran are struggling to contain the virus. While the initial responses by the U.S. and Europe were far from perfect, we should not disregard the strengths of a free and open democracy.

The problem is that these strengths are no longer as pronounced. Nationalism and populism have accelerated around the world over the virus, pushing many leaders into a more authoritarian and exclusionary brand of politics.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who openly advocates illiberal democracy, has been granted sweeping powers under an indefinite state of emergency declared in response to the coronavirus. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly gave the military and the police the green light to shoot civilians who violate lockdown orders.

As of early May 5, there were 84 countries with emergency declarations over the virus, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Thirty had measures that impact expression, and 111 that affect assembly.

"It is an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis," to quote United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. While limiting some actions and rights may be necessary in an emergency, we must not accept restrictions that go too far or accept the current state of affairs as a new normal.

Globalization and international cooperation, advocated by democratic states, are under threat as well. U.S. President Donald Trump has suspended some immigration and threatened funding to the World Health Organization under his "America First" ideology. The European Union is strongly divided on the economy and other issues.

The trend extends beyond world leaders. The publics at the very heart of democracies are growing self-interested and exclusionary, triggering crime, bullying and false rumors in the midst of the crisis.

Asians now face racism in the U.S. and Europe over misconceptions that they spread the virus, while Hindu nationalists in India blame Muslims. The world is sorely missing a sense of unity, despite facing an enemy that threatens all of humanity.

Even before the coronavirus, there was concern in the world about "Westlessness" -- the decline of American and European societies that until now had been beacons of democratic ideals. Further deterioration in the rule of law, human rights protections and multilateralism is not ideal. We need to not only defeat COVID-19, but also protect the principles and foundations of democracy.

Balancing authority and human rights in a pandemic is no easy task. Governments seeking expanded powers therefore must provide clear constraints and time limits as well as strong legal and scientific justifications. The public also must be more vigilant about abuses. Otherwise, the world will be left dealing with negative consequences even after the outbreak ends.

The use of the latest technology to track the public is now spreading into democracies as well. Some people want automatic tracking of those under quarantine, for example. So it is important to create laws and regulations to keep the internet -- long symbolic of a free and open society -- from becoming an amplifier for autocrats.

When too much of the public has lost tolerance and self-restraint, it is impossible to rebuild a healthy society and international order. It is important for each and every individual to acknowledge the responsibility they have.

French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote: "The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal; but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or to wretchedness." We must take these words to heart as we face a historic crossroads.

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