Democracy: The Next Corona Victim

The coronavirus pandemic is holding up a mirror to all our illusions.

We thought that economies could grow relentlessly, without paying a price. That we could travel whenever and wherever we want without polluting the atmosphere. That the rich could grow ever richer, without being impacted by the poverty they cause. That globalization would bring only the benefits of cross-border trade, not the disadvantages.

And now that we’re cowering at home from the dreaded virus, who do we turn to for succour, bail-outs, sound advice? To our governments! The very institutions that created the problems in the first place, through their dereliction of health services, their kowtowing to the super-rich and the powerful, their incompetence and their corruption.

I don’t know who’s going to come out looking good from this debacle: doctors and health service workers, almost certainly – they’re falling like flies from the virus and still they go out daily to save the rest of us. The earth may come out looking slightly better, too, if the operations of airlines, mines and other polluters are curbed.

But so-called democratic governments – our democratic governments – will emerge significantly diminished. Not necessarily in their power; many governments have regarded the pandemic as an opportunity to increase their power and reduce the freedoms that we regard as essential to democracy. That elevated power may well become the norm when all this is over; we could still be nostalgic for the good old days.

Democracy will be diminished – has already been diminished – as a virtue; as a fair and equal means of governance that serves the needs of the bulk of the people; as the ‘end of history’ that Francis Fukayama once called it. The coronavirus mirror has exposed modern democratic government in all its nakedness.

Governments, almost without exception, have been caught with their pants down by the pandemic. Not only were they not sufficiently prepared for an event of this enormity, but many of them have deliberately and callously allowed public medicine to dwindle as they pandered to the rich – and shaved off a bit for themselves. Today there are not enough hospital beds, not enough ventilators, not enough testing kits, not enough hazard suits. Not enough of anything except gall.

Trump is preparing to hand out bailouts left, right and center – but only to the rich. Independents – those without influential shareholders – won’t get a thing. High-tech companies – those prophets of technology as the universal panacea – won’t have to pay sick leave or compensation to workers who have lost their jobs. Working people will find themselves on the dole. Because politicians understand who sponsors their campaigns.

Of all the governmental sins, the most egregious is occurring in Israel, where a stealthy – and, so far, bloodless – coup is now in progress. Benjamin Netanyahu and his minions are reportedly preparing to reject a High Court request to open the Knesset (parliament), which has been shuttered for weeks due to a confluence of corona and a political stalemate.

Without parliamentary oversight, Netanyahu’s interim government – he has now lost three elections in a row – can rule by decree, unembarrassed by its lack of a popular mandate. Those decrees (some have already been published) include intrusive surveillance of the entire population by the security services, the scrapping of any and all supervision of the executive by the Knesset and the High Court, the banning of protests (on the grounds that they are gatherings of more than ten people) and, of course, the non-implementation of social distancing rules in communities on which the government relies for its support – primarily ultra-Orthodox Jews.

If Netanyahu has his way, the Israel that emerges from the pandemic will be a shadow of the limited democracy that preceded it, which, as we know, was significantly circumscribed. In scheming to save himself from appearing in court on corruption charges, Netanyahu the patriot is prepared to take the country down with him.

But it’s not only in Israel that democracy will be reduced. Around the world, the feudal allegiance to money and power is being challenged. Profligacy is being punished. Impunity is coming unstuck. I don’t know how it will all pan out, but it’s already clear that the world to come will be a very different place from the one we knew only two weeks ago.