What Follows COVID-19: Democratic Evolution or Regression Toward Autocracy?
After the SARS flu virus in 2001–2004, the 2009 H1N1 influenza, also known as the swine flu, and Ebola in 2014–2016, COVID-19 is the fourth pandemic of the 21st century and the first to cause the close down of social life the way we know it. What these pandemics have in common is the crossing from wild animals to humans — the US American Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 75 percent of new diseases that infect humans derive from animals. Due to global warming these transmissions are most likely to increase as wild habitats are shrinking, caused by catastrophic wildfires such as the recent Australian hits, forcing animals into (sometimes highly) populated towns and cities. As both climate change and global population continue to grow the crisis is exacerbated.[3a, 3b] How we respond nationally and internationally could threaten democracy.
Is Democracy in Danger?
Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation, argues that open democracies are more likely to respond in a competent manner to COVID-19 than authoritarian regimes (such a Iran, North Korea or Syria) whose actions are directed by interests of the ruling classes rather than public well-being — in his view, the delayed response to the pandemic of the Trump administration in the US and the Johnson government in the UK is a sign of their incompetence and not that of a failed democracy.[4, min. 20:51] But democracies could fall if they do not take this opportunity to prove themselves better than authoritarian regimes. For example, let us take a look at censorship. Censorship, said Gladstein, is bad for addressing pandemics because they require flexibility, open communication, sincerity and quick action even if they need privacy restrictions and government intrusion into individual freedom as is the case with social distancing and lockdowns. This is why we must protect democracy by making sure human rights restrictions have an expiration date after the crisis — the USA Patriot Act issued after the 9/11 terrorist attack and the Chinese censorships during the 2008 Olympics are examples of human rights restrictions that have been issued with good intentions at the time but are still active.[5a, 5b] As soon as life returns to normal, we must insist on regaining our civil liberties even if we have to use open protest or exercise our rights to demonstrate and to vote. This applies particularly to the usage of digital identities during pandemics but also to the open sourcing of private data from our phones, wearables, computers or public video cameras without our consent. If data are collected for scientific purposes, they must have an expiration date, be anonymized, cannot be used against its citizens, and have democratic accountability attached to them.
Exponential Tech: Threat or Blessing?
This makes obvious that living in the exponential tech age can be both challenging and a blessing. On the one hand, social media quickly turned COVID-19 into fake news and disinformation, for example, on Instagram and Facebook, on the other hand, the #FlattenTheCurve and #StayHomeAndSaveLives hashtags on Twitter went viral and helped educate people on the importance of social distancing and other scientific-based measures crucial for their own survival. In Italy, for example, where more than 6,000 people died of the virus in a month, respirator valves were 3D-printed after a hospital in Brescia reported running out threatening the lives of hundreds of people. Italian engineers Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Romaioli asked the manufacturer to provide the blueprints of the valves so they could use to print replicas on the 3D-printer of their start-up company, but the request was declined. Based on the original valve, the engineers developed three prototypes of these life-saving devices in a couple of hours. They transformed a common snorkeling mask into an emergency respiratory mask and printed 100 devices within 24 hours at a price for less than €1 per piece (compared with the regular price per valve of ca. €11,000) and saving the lives of at least 10 patience thus far. At the time of writing, the researchers were working for free and this could become an amazing example of people before profits, if it were not for the patent owner and manufacturer of the valve who is threatening to sue against patent infringement. This brings up again the question of ethics and morals when it comes to the price tag we associate with a human life compared with the financial gain derived from a patent.
As the call for social distancing increased and more people were required to self-isolate or self-quarantine, organizations encouraged many workers to work from home. This would not have been possible before the Internet age and we can now feel the importance of digitalization including the necessity for ubiquitous, high-quality Internet access globally. We can now witness in a very concrete manner how exponentially growing technologies and platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Slack, Google Suite, Alibaba’s Ding Talk, or Microsoft Office 365) can be applied to keep some normality up during crisis. While we can’t know what the long-term economic effects will be, the short-term pain is being at least partially eased in some sectors by remote working, remote free learning and even graduation, as well as automating oneself for self-sufficiency at home. Remote conferencing tools such as Skype (now Microsoft) and Zoom have contributed significantly to this end and Zoom, for example, even thrived financially through this crisis when their stock more than doubled since January 2020. Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a central role in this crisis as well. In her IEEE Spectrum article, Megan Scudelari, is showing, for example, how five companies are currently using deep learning models to discover new drugs that might successfully treat COVID-19. They have opened their platforms to allow scientists around the world to leverage their collective intelligence to expedite the development of an antivirus and a vaccine.
The need for self-sufficiency at home has never become more apparent and I am positive that this experience will encourage the increased construction of sustainable housing, zero-energy buildings and the retrofitting of existing homes with renewable technologies in the near future. From solar panels to solar tiles[15a, 15b, 15c] to power walls to energy storage, home automation and even vertical farming at home[17a, 17b], to name a few, the necessary technologies are available, and could be applied with proper legislation and government support.
Another exponential technology that becomes extremely useful at a time of social distancing are autonomous service robots powered by neural networks that can be used to remotely deliver food, medication, and other supplies to people in quarantine. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Instead, companies, for example, such as Deliveroo and Glovo switched to contactless delivery instead of person to person. To date, many large organizations have displayed a people-first mindset. Online retail platforms such as Amazon and Kijiji cancelled the accounts of people who had bought up essential supplies to sell for inflated prices online. And many supermarkets not only imposed limits on the number of items customers could buy at any one time, but also had designated hours (usually the first business hour of the day) for seniors and high-risk members of the community. Some also offered free delivery.
Systemic Evolution or Collapse of Civilization?
As I write these words, things are still changing — sometimes by the hour. But there will be consequences, both long-term and short-term. The implications are not only medical and biological, or social, cultural and political, they are not even only economical, but existential if pandemics are really increasing. We can use this opportunity to evolve to the next stage of human civilization and not only prevent the collapse of democratic societies but evolve them or regresses to nationalism, populism, and dictatorship either through incompetence or out of fear. We will see how resilient the various forms of government and governance are and how we can make them more resilient in the future. Thus far, governments around the world are taking historic rescue measures to stop the spread of and to prop up the economy during the pandemic. For example, the German government just approved a €833 billion ($930 billion) economic aid package to help its population of 82 million, the USA government released a $2 trillion (€1.79 trillion) stimulus package for its 327 million citizens, Singapore plans an additional $33.2 billion economic package (on top of the already spent $4.4 billion) to support its 5.7 million citizens, and Japan with its population of 124.8 million plans an economic stimulus package of about 10% of GDP that is expected to be well over $515 billion. Current global activities around this pandemic make it obvious how helpless and disunited we are although, like climate change, the coronavirus, doesn’t stop at national borders. At UN level but also within the European Union, every member state is doing what they can to address the problem at country level within their own borders, but there is little to none collective activity to help countries such as Iran, North Korea, or Syria who also suffer from embargoes.
Can the European Union become a Beacon of Light in the Darkness?
Systemic change is imminent if we want to protect democracy. Former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis is convinced that “Europe is unprepared for the COVID-19 recession” and current stimulus packages will contribute little toward avoiding it. He is comparing current stimulus packages with the ones issued in 2008 in response to the financial crisis that provided liquidity to an already bankrupted financial system without changing it at the core. In his view, the COVID-19 crisis is only resurfacing this problem as did the refugee crisis of 2015 and he calls for systemic changes. First, he called for solidarity as the foundation of the European Union which has never been weaker than now. “Europe is only as healthy as its sickest resident and only as strong as its most bankrupted nation” and the price for the lack of united action threatens to become the “disintegration of the union itself” [26, Yanis Varoufakis minute 0:47–1:16] with terrible future impact. Varoufakis proposed to address the crisis through (1) the rise of public debt and the replacement by government expenditure to avoid bankruptcies, (2) the European Central Bank (ECB) ought to issue Eurobonds for three decades until the transition to more sustainable systems has been made and (3) Pan-European investments ought to be made to ensure jobs, public health, public education, the commons (including a universal basic income), and the green transition. This would require a democratically elected European government, a treasury that raises taxes to ensure the repayment of the Eurobonds in a timely fashion, and a green recovery agency. At the same time, we will have to go beyond GDP as the only measurement of success, because we can only achieve what we measure and GDP measures for-profit only at the expense of everything else including people and the planet. Maja Goepel, in her recent article on Social Europe, suggested Europe’s answer to COVID-19 must: (1) implement the replacement of GDP with a Well-being economy with zero-carbon footprint, (2) ensure that small and medium enterprises, which create up to 80% of wealth in most nations, maintain the diversity, creativity, innovation, and their resilience, and (3) make massive patient capital available to develop a sustainable economy that uses integrated measurements for success that include the parity of people, planet and prosperity criteria.
Is Fear the Hidden Pandemic?
I am confident we can collectively learn from our experiences and apply the lessons learned to protect ourselves and our planet. At the individual levels, if we are healthy and have not been hit by the virus or have been lucky enough to overcome it, we do have the opportunity to grow beyond ourselves and become a pillar of strength for others in need. Times of crisis remind us that we cannot control the outside world, we cannot control what other people do, we cannot control the weather, or a virus for that matter. What we can control is our psychological state, what we think, how we behave, and who we become during the crisis. We do have the choice and we can move either toward desperation, and buy even more toilet paper, or become an inspiration, and a force for good to ourselves, and others. We can grow emotionally and be there for those in need or we can regress, feel sorry for ourselves, and become a burden to those around us (virtually and/or physically). Our mindset is the key to both our happiness and our misery. You are the only person thinking in your head and you can choose. Do you want to live in fear or do you want to be in love?
 See, for example https://www.climateemergencysummit.org/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbRF29dgZss
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YpagDZ5Rek min. 20:51
 See, for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriot_Act and https://tinyurl.com/uc5mtn5
 See, for example, free ivy league courses https://tinyurl.com/yx4quugj
 Scudelari (19 March 2020) viewed March 30, 2020 at https://tinyurl.com/wlhpvkc
 See, for example https://www.autarq.com/ and http://tesla.properties/ and https://www.tesla.com/solarroof
 See, for example https://tinyurl.com/y4ej2haf
 https://tinyurl.com/y6h5qgxb and https://tinyurl.com/s7me2qr
 Yanis Varoufakis minute 0:47–1:16 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm97g0RqYGM