Pandemic Politics: COVID-19, democracy and governance

Julie George

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought existing shortcomings of governance to the fore, with the White House at the centre of questions on whether the US government will be able to adapt to ongoing challenges. Image Credit: John Loo via Flickr.

In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. International Affairs’ 50:50 in 2020 initiative is partnering with the FSF to support its mission of amplifying the expertise of women and share the insights of PhD students on COVID-19 and grand strategy; the military; and governance and democracy.

This week in Pandemic Politics, Julie George’s introduction, as well as Katrina Ponti’s, Dakota Foster’s and John R. Emery’s blogposts discuss COVID-19, democracy and governance.

As of today, there have been 23,507,852 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 809,958 deaths across 188 countries. COVID-19 has and will continue to force countries and communities to grapple with its impact on daily life. This includes the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic affects governance and democracy, such as the role of law in public health, uses of technologies in curbing the spread of the virus and dynamics within local communities.

In this section of the Pandemic Politics series, three members of the Future Strategy Forum cohort will examine what effect COVID-19 will have on democracy and governance. In these three excellent pieces, Katrina Ponti, Dakota Foster and John R. Emery explore how public trust and democracy interact in responses to a pandemic. This with the aim to understand how trust in the government can be sustained and to explore ways to protect democratic ideals.

In her piece, Katrina Ponti aptly reminds us of the United States’ first epidemic, the 1793 yellow fever outbreak, and how it has been overlooked in recent months. She argues the yellow fever epidemic has a number of significant lessons such as the importance of rallying citizens for pandemic-related assistance, highlighting prominent issues faced by different communities and responding to local government figures during the pandemic. While Ponti’s piece focuses on key lessons from the eighteenth century, Dakota Foster directs our attention to current day millennials and GenZers in the United States. Foster raises attention to the plethora of ways in which COVID-19’s economic fallout adversely affects the country’s youngest generations. However, she also shares thoughtful recommendations for US foreign policy makers to engage, serve and involve young Americans in confronting the effects of the pandemic — stressing national service programs and potential policy issues of interest for millennials. John R. Emery examines the ways in which technologies such as robotic aerial vehicles and facial recognition software overlap in webs of socio-technical interactions. Emery underlines that even in times of a pandemic, communities of colour are surveilled and targeted, and concludes with a call for greater democratic accountability and drawing boundaries for new technologies.

The concerns highlighted by Ponti, Foster and Emery are pertinent and important issues for governments and society at large. They underscore the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses for democracy and governance. According to the United Nations, for example, at least 80 countries have declared states of emergency in the name of pandemic response. Elections have been postponed or cancelled in at least 67 countries or territories due to COVID-19. Moreover, while various countries acted swiftly and efficiently to implement lockdown measures and contain the outbreak, it is clear that different methods and priorities were part of countries’ responses to the pandemic. China put at least 50 million people in Wuhan and surrounding cities on lockdown through a mandatory quarantine at the beginning of the outbreak. In this time, China built two hospitals in Wuhan in about seven days and organized 1,800 teams of five or more people who traced tens of thousands of contacts. China has also been criticized for a series of issues, including the alleged omission of asymptomatic coronavirus cases in total confirmed cases. The United States banned most travel from China at the end of January, enforced the European travel ban in March and officially pulled out of the World Health Organization this month. Other countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, Taiwan and Denmark continue to manage the pandemic fairly well due to immediate testing, quick decisiveness for lockdowns and consistent screening.

Government responses have also been supported or complemented by many actors in the private sector which introduced comprehensive measures to curb the spread of the virus. This largely to address shortcomings in government policies, such as the US federal shortage in the stockpile of personal protective equipment — including face shields, masks and medical gowns — which led states to bid against one another for the remaining protective gear. Many companies are trying to fill this gap, including ‘car manufacturers like Ford vowing to 3D print face shields and masks for health care workers’.

Moreover, Apple and Google recently launched a COVID-19 exposure notification system, which seeks to help public health departments to build their own contract tracing applications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States similarly created a COVIDTracer, which is a spreadsheet-based tool that seeks to provide information to states and local-level public health officials and policy officials for comparing diverse contract tracing and monitoring strategies. Such digital strategies do however pose a number of issues. One model asserted that for digital contract tracing to be effective, 60 per cent of the population would have to partake in the application. Next to this, these technologies for monitoring the pandemic require trust from citizens, privacy measures and verification for public health effectiveness — a tall order indeed when it comes to democratic accountability.

Time will tell how countries across the globe have measured up to COVID-19. As we grapple with its effects, it is clear that there are many complex and challenging governance issues: how can privacy be ensured in digital tracing system? How can restrictive lockdown measures be imposed without affecting democratic ideals? Is it appropriate for democratic governments to lean so heavily on the private sector or local communities? The following collection of blogposts addresses how democracy affects global and domestic responses to COVID-19. While the authors push our understanding of the pandemic and its relationship to governance on the global level, they also underline how the virus impacts the home front in unexpected ways.

Julie George is a PhD candidate in the Government department at Cornell University, specializing in international security. Her research examines the proliferation of emerging technologies and its impact on the probability and nature of conflict and cooperation in the international system.

In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. This series is made possible by The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG).

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