The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in-depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

“Coronavirus kills its first democracy,” the Washington Post declared in March 2020, after the Hungarian parliament voted to give prime minister Viktor Orban the authority to rule by decree in the name of fighting COVID-19. Freedom House has reported that since the coronavirus outbreak began, democracy and human rights have worsened in 80 countries, with particularly sharp deterioration in struggling democracies and highly repressive states. While the power to rule by decree was later revoked in Hungary, civic observers warned these new authorities could be used again in future crises.

Authoritarian Trends

“What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. The decline in global freedom predates the pandemic – 2020 was the 15thconsecutive year showing a decline, according to Freedom House – but it has made it worse.  Last year, the global decline in democracy accelerated, and the countries experiencing a decline in freedom outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.

The International Crisis Group warned that the crisis has created “ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad.” As one Freedom House survey respondent said of Turkey, “Coronavirus was used as an excuse for the already oppressive government to do things that it has long planned to do but had not been able to.

The coronavirus has directly impacted many aspects of democracy in countries around the world — from postponing elections to crackdowns, arrests and torture of citizen protesters to using military force and coups to resolve long-standing conflicts and consolidate power.

  • Despite coups being less common now than 50 years ago, there have been six coups in 2021 as military and authoritarian leaders take advantage of COVID-19 and political unrest.
  • Elections were postponed or cancelled in at least 79 countries or territoriesbecause of COVID-19, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
  • However, 124 countries have managed to hold national elections or referendums since February 2020 despite COVID-19 concerns, including the United States where the November 2020 election saw the highest turnout in 120 years.

While some countries like South Korea quickly adapted their electoral processes to pandemic conditions in ways that increased voter participation, pandemic restrictions in other places limited democratic progress.  In Burundi, the first competitive presidential elections since 1993 were held in 2020, but quarantine restrictions due to coronavirus meant that international election observers were not present.

Distrust in authoritarian governments is also prolonging the pandemic by confounding vaccination efforts throughout Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, while vaccines are plentiful and COVID-19 is surging, a doctor says that, “Ukrainians have learned to distrust any authorities’ initiatives, and vaccination isn’t an exclusion.”

Global Citizen Protests

As discussions continue about the full re-opening of public spaces along with the production and distribution of vaccines, another key question remains: What impact has COVID-19 and social distancing had on the dramatic wave of citizen protests in recent years? According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Protest Tracker, more than 110 countries have experienced significant protests, including 78% of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning countries.  While popular protests in Chile and Sudan had led to democratic improvements, the Sudanese military coup in October 2021 seems to render those (its?) improvements short-term. Protests against authoritarian governments continue in Sudan and Myanmar, but Freedom House identified 158 countries where new restrictions were imposed on protests in 2020.

  • In Hong Kong, after months of empty streets due to lockdown, protestors wearing masks returned after the Chinese Communist Party’s proposed new national security law but were swiftly met with repression and arrest.
  • In Lebanon, after the government announced its plan to reopen the country in 2020, protestors emerged to attack banks and shut down highways.  One Lebanese protestor declared“We stopped the revolution because of corona,” but now, “bankruptcy is coming. Hunger is coming.”
  • In the United States, hundreds of thousands of people in over 2,000 localities protested the killing of Black Americans over summer 2020, according to the Carnegie Endowment, while protests against COVID-19 restrictions like wearing masks and vaccine mandates have also grown in many states around the country.

Building Back Democratically

Many  have argued like NDI that “building back democratically is central to pandemic recovery and long-term development.” Dramatic efforts to prevent the spread of the virus—shelter at home orders, closing of non-essential businesses, and travel restrictions—have altered lives and provoked counter-reactions around the world, but in many countries like France, South Korea, and Italy, these powers have been temporary and proportionate to the public health crisis.

  • Recommendations include calls for governments, civil societies, and donors to protect and invest in the safety and integrity of elections, counter homegrown and foreign disinformation, and protect free and independent media that can provide fact-based information about the virus and its spread.

Some have warned that China and Russia’s efforts to provide emergency medical supplies and vaccines to countries dealing with COVID-19 could reinforce a global argument that authoritarian regimes are more effective than democracies at dealing with the pandemic – even if there is no pattern of democratic vs. authoritarian regimes responding more effectively. Many democracies like Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand have mounted effective responses to the spread of the disease.

In early December 2021, the White House hosted the first of two Summits for Democracy to convene over 100 countries from around the world and set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action. This builds upon ongoing democracy assistance programming through USAID and Biden Administration efforts to counter authoritarian influence by investing in infrastructure in developing nations.

The Biden Administration has deemed 2022, the intervening year between these two summits, as the “Year of Action” for democratic growth and is challenging civil society and governments to counter authoritarianism in the time of COVID-19. As the recent emergence of the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus reminds us, the world is losing the race between vaccines and variants. Members of Congress have expressed the importance of vaccine diplomacy to address the growing influence of authoritarianism in developing nations. A robust vaccine global distribution strategy may be key to resisting the influence of authoritarian regimes in developing nations and ending the pandemic for all to prevent further democratic backsliding.

Last updated December  2021

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