Championing original and authoritative research


What Would Democratic Pandemic Response Look Like?

By Kristian Bjørkdahl, co-editor of Pandemics, Publics, and Politics

If we were not currently in the midst of one, I expect most people would be inclined to think of pandemics quite simply as bio-medical phenomena. Pandemics are diseases, they would say – they are the kind of thing that people with a certain type of medical expertise (immunology, epidemiology) know a lot about. 

Except things are not as simple as this. As COVID-19 has clearly shown, pandemics must be seen as largely political phenomena. Certainly, if we revert to the original meaning of that word, where it referred to interactions between the citizens of a polis, then pandemics are quite literally political. They are created by and develop through our interactions with each other.

Whichever meaning of the word “politics” we rely on, COVID-19 offers ample examples that pandemics are shot through with politics. But if that much can be established, we need to ask another question: What political form should pandemic response ideally take?

Even in advanced democracies, we tend to think that serious crises are no occasion for broad, democratic deliberation. Nobody would propose a referendum, for instance, to decide whether or not to enter a pandemic lock-down. We tend to think, rather, that during times of crisis, decisions need to be quick, firm, and unidirectional. It was for cases like these, after all, that the ancient Romans occasionally appointed a dictator

But as I believe history has shown, the office of the dictator can be a trap that ends up swallowing a republic. There is thus good reason to be alert about what happens to democratic expression and participation during a crisis like the present one, not least because there are already signs that the pandemic has been bloodletting our societies of certain democratic functions.

We can consider, first, how political authorities have invited epidemiological expertise to take on roles as advisors or even quasi-decision-makers. The degree to which this has happened has admittedly varied greatly: While the political leaders of my own country, Norway, have taken a clear and outward-facing role in managing the crisis, often disregarding the advice of the Institute of Public Health, neighboring Sweden has left pandemic response, including the job of communicating to the public, largely to the Public Health Agency and its “state epidemiologist.” This might seem like two very different paths, but in reality it is a matter of a slightly different weighting of authority. A real contrast emerges first when one considers countries like the United States or Brazil, where political leaders have waged verbal wars with the relevant public health experts.

Nevertheless, in most places, epidemiologists and other public health experts are now in positions of power which they normally do not occupy. The trouble with this, of course, is that these experts have not been elected by popular vote, but also, that their mode of operation – science – is not that of normal, democratic life. Even before the pandemic, there were concerns that we are moving towards an “epistocracy” (a rule of experts), and one could view the pandemic as a test case of what that form of government would look like. Pandemic epistocracy probably saves lives, but the question is whether it sucks up democratic agency in the process. 

While I would be hard pressed to offer any kind of support to Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s political styles, one could argue they have done a better job of keeping certain ordinary democratic functions – argument, verbal confrontation, disagreement – alive than have certain other political leaders. That said, their willingness to put the arsenal of populist tactics to use even during the pandemic illustrates another challenge to democracy, namely the lure of partisan politics. In the U.S., especially, the President has managed to use the pandemic as another occasion for his trademark technique of dividing the population into “good Americans” and “bad Americans,” of separating the presidentially trustworthy from the officially declared corrupt. Of course, the cold civil war that besets the United States has been ongoing for some time already, but I would not bet on things improving much by adding a pandemic crisis to the mix. 

The populist threat to democracy is even more serious than the epistocratic one. For while Trump and Bolsonaro might offer certain groups of voters the recognition they long for, the populists have no resources with which to get things done in the long run. Among the many other problems, both moral and political, that plague the politics of Trump and Bolsonaro, it is also quite unsustainable. With their strategy of dividing and disintegrating the population, they are digging political trenches from which their successors will have to work hard to climb out of. And while one could argue that democracy thrives on conflict and disagreement, the polity must nevertheless remain solid, it must remain whole.

That brings us to a country which is decidedly not about to disintegrate, namely China, and to a final threat we might consider, namely how far the authorities of various countries have gone towards curtailing the freedom of its citizens in a pandemic situation. China’s authoritarian strategies in response to COVID-19 have been quite remarkable in this regard, and has involved, among other things, removing people from their homes with force, in effect carrying them off – presumably to other, more strictly monitored, environments. This is the kind of action that citizens of a full-fledged democracy would not stand for. If I were to consider my own country again, however, I would have to conclude that the strictures enacted by the Norwegian government have not lagged that far behind. At the height of the strictures, Norwegian citizens – as those of many other countries – were quarantined; kindergartens, schools, offices, and businesses closed down; public assembly forbidden. Emergency laws were passed. Entry into the country was no longer allowed, and outbound travel severely restricted.

Although I hesitate to think of Norwegian authorities as “authoritarian,” these measures – the strictest since WWII – did not exactly rest on broad democratic participation. They were concocted by a tiny group of our leaders, who admittedly have been elected, but who, in this context have acted, at least more than they normally would have, like authoritarian rulers. Alongside the threats of epistocracy and populism, I consider this “authoritarian-ish-ism” to represent a third serious threat which has been brought out by COVID-19. 

I also find, however, that many citizens, even of what are normally democratic countries, are not particularly troubled by any of these tendencies – as long as lives are saved. In Norway, people have obediently done as they have been told by the government, even though the impact of the virus in this country has been very slight. And in France, where matters admittedly have been worse, a series of lawsuits were filed against the government for acting too slowly, in effect seeking to prosecute the state for manslaughter.

Does this mean we can conclude that what I have presented as pandemic threats to democratic expression and participation are not really threats at all? Might we in fact conclude that submission to expert advice, attachment to partisan interests, or obedience towards government is a form of democratic expression? That by going along, people are giving their consent as citizens? I don’t think so. For although democratic citizens can legitimately transfer political agency to a dictator in times of crisis, there are many reasons why this transferal should only be done with the utmost care and caution. 

In the case of COVID-19, this transferal has, as I see it, not been done with care and caution, but almost instinctively, reflexively, out of fear. We have forfeited our freedom of democratic expression and participation too easily for the sake of security. So to the question of what a democratic pandemic response would look like, I’m afraid we have to admit that we don’t yet know, since no country has really revealed much in the line of democratic instincts.

Kristian Bjørkdahl is postdoctoral fellow and head of teaching at Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM), at the University of Oslo