The world is currently going through what is being described as the worst and most crippling crisis since the Second World War. The COVID 19 crisis, hitherto a minuscule concern in the Chinese city of Wuhan in the larger Hubei province, has since morphed, and incredibly so fast, into a full-blown global crisis. Entrenched norms, traditions and ways of life, hitherto inconceivably uninterruptible, have since known the worst of their upended versions. Whether in the political sphere, economic or social, radical interruptions are lamentably crowding our spaces. Economically, for instance, economic activities, at least a good number, are literally grounded, with employees rudely shaken out of their comfort spaces through furloughs, lay-offs and pay-cuts. Save probably for sectors servicing frontline operations, especially in the medical sector, the rest are staring at existential threat. Transport, sporting, banking, just to mention a few, are literally struggling. Socially, ordinary ways of life are in reverse. Social distancing is perhaps the most quoted concept currently. Usual mass physical gatherings, an entrenched characteristic of human relations and interactions, has been suspended. The greatest reprieve is the advance in technology that has creatively ensured sustained interactions, albeit devoid of physical proximity. It is hard to think what would have otherwise obtained.
In a sense, the crisis has visited, as an uninvited and unwanted guest, the systems upon which our livelihoods are anchored. One such system id democracy. Globally acknowledged as the most sustainable system of governance in the long-term, democracy is now facing one of its most lethal threats. So it is because the traditions, norms and mechanisms that oil its wheels have been hollowed out. In a number of ways, cherished democracy is feeling the pain of the grinding, occasioned by the obtaining friction. All the arms of government; executives, legislatures and judiciaries are wandering in the unknown, with creativity being one of the main components constituting the compass upon which they are relying for direction.
Various jurisdictions are responding differently to the unfolding crisis, with some proving more effective and efficient than others. It is a crisis that serves to reveal the ‘real democrats’ and ‘autocrats gussied up in democracy’. Real democrats have sought to creatively manoeuvre their way, ensuring that the key foundations of democracy face minimal if any, interruption(s). In the United States, for instance, each of the three arms of government, and especially Executive and Congress, have shown no willingness to sacrifice their cherished turfs in the name of containing the crisis. Both arms were as involved, as it could conceivably be, in the development of the $2 trillion bail-out legislation to mitigate the damages of the pandemic. Not even the urgency of the situation stood in the way of a rather protracted negotiation process toward a compromise agreeable to all concerned parties and entities.
In Canada, the opposition Conservative Party in the House of Commons resisted the attempt by the ruling Liberal Party to use, or should I say misuse, the emergency to expand Executive powers. Conservative Party Leader, Andrew Scheer, was firm that he ‘would oppose any attempts by the Liberal government to expand its power.’ The case was no different in the United Kingdom where Coronavirus Bill was passed in the House of Commons, including guarantees on effective checks and balances. South Korea, in a rather exceptional and rare move given the circumstances, demonstrated their determination to uphold the democratic values and practices, upon which their success is anchored, by allowing their elections to proceed. Rather than citing the crisis as the reason to suspend elections, they are mining and subsequently leveraging all available opportunities, including technology, to ensure that elections proceed as planned. They are scheduled for 15th April 2020.
However, not all cases have demonstrated similar institutional determination to further the cause of democracy. In some cases, they have in fact misused the pandemic to exsanguinate the tenuous lifeline keeping democracy alive. Unlike in Europe and North America, where legislatures stamped their authority, Africa is thus far largely characterized by legislatures’ loud absence. Their voice has been so muted that executives have largely run the show almost unilaterally. In Kenya, cases of violations have been witnessed, including excessive use of violence by security agencies, in the name of enforcing the curfew. It is important to understand that the real enemy to be confronted is COVID-19 and not democracy. Effort should, therefore, be applied accordingly. Democracy must, therefore, be protected at all costs. It will play a crucial role, where it has been allowed to thrive, in containing the pandemic. Duty bearers must, therefore, rise to the occasion to play their role in safeguarding democracy. Now is the time to pave way for moral, legal and constitutional correctness to lead the way and not political correctness.