The rapid global spread of the 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.

Last updated April 8, 2021

“Coronavirus kills its first democracy,” the Washington Post declared last year, after the Hungarian parliament voted in March 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 15th consecutive year showing a decline, according to Freedom House – but it has made it worse. Last year, 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 the crisis creates “ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad.” The coronavirus has had an impact on many aspects of democracy in countries around the world — from postponing elections to crackdowns, arrests and torture of citizen protesters to using military force to resolve long-standing conflicts and consolidate power.

  • Elections have been postponed or cancelled in at least 78 countries or territories because of COVID-19, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
  • Yet at least 88 countries have managed to hold national elections or referendums since February 2020 despite COVID-19 concerns, including the United States where last November’s 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 last year but quarantine restrictions due to coronavirus meant that international election observers were not present.

Global Citizen Protests
As discussions begin about the re-opening of public spaces along with the production and distribution of vaccines, another key question is, what impact has COVID-19 and social distancing had on the dramatic wave of citizen protest in recent years? According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Protest Tracker, more than 100 countries have experienced significant protests, including 78% of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning countries. While popular protests in Chile and Sudan led to democratic improvements, Freedom House identified 158 countries where new restrictions have been imposed on protests.

  • 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 earlier this year, 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 across the country protested the killing of Black Americans, according to the Carnegie Endowment, while protests against COVID-19 restrictions like wearing masks 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.

  • Recommendation 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.

Written by John Glenn

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