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Governance Post-COVID-19: Democracies will have to reform for survival

COVID-19 has emerged as a challenge as well as an opportunity for the governments throughout the world to prove themselves on various fronts of governance particularly in maintaining the supply of essentials. The weak systems are falling apart while innovative minds and performers are adding feathers in their caps. 

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 12-05-2020 23:47 IST | Created: 12-05-2020 23:47 IST
Governance Post-COVID-19: Democracies will have to reform for survival
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Lockdown. This has been popularized as the most effective measure to combat COVID-19 pandemic by public healthcare experts throughout the world until a vaccine or effective treatment is discovered. They are very much justified from the perspective of their discipline – public healthcare. However, the solution has posed a bigger problem that falls in the domain of other disciplines – politics and governance.

The first news of lockdown came from Wuhan, the origin place of COVID-19, on January 21. Thereafter almost every country of the world has faced lockdown. Though Wuhan was opened on April 8, all the norms of social distancing and precautions are still continued. Furthermore, China is not a democratic country from the perspective of democracies in the West. Chinese President Xi Jinping was accorded the status of Mao Zedong in 2018. Therefore, he will remain the President of China for life and his words will be the law of the land. The situations are quite similar in some countries of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa that have a monarchy system.

But, this is not so in democratic setups. Jinping's bete noire Donald Trump is scheduled to face re-election by end of this year for which voting will be conducted on November 3. Along with the new president, Americans will also elect 435 House of Representatives and 35 out of 100 Senate members. Trump's presidential campaign was on a full swing when the virus struck in the US and collapsed the whole system.

Besides, several democratic governments worldwide have rammed into unprecedented constitutional crises - how to hold elections? This is over and above their responsibilities to maintain essential supplies and civic services to the people in the ensuing pandemic. Several establishments throughout the world such as Poland, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Syria, etc., have canceled or postponed elections. Even judicial intervention has been sought in the US to cancel the upcoming presidential elections. Most recently, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on May 9, approved amendments to the country's state of emergency to get additional powers for himself and security agencies, which, according to the government, are needed to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

Elections during pandemic: Experiences of South Korea and France

South Korea has presented a model to handle the crisis and convert it into an opportunity. After successfully handling the COVID-19 crisis with the help of high-end technological innovations such as highly interactive mobile apps, interactive websites, surveillance testing, contact tracing, and implementing social distancing measures with the help of real-time geospatial location-based mobility data, the ruling party went into the election scheduled on April 15.

As a result, President Moon Jae-in's left-leaning party secured a comfortable majority, first in the last 16 years. Besides, the voting percentage was 66.2 percent, the highest since 71.9 percent turnout in a 1992 general election. In the election, 17.2 million people cast their votes in addition to 11.8 million who used their ballots during early voting or by mail. The arrangements made were as follows:

  1. Duct tape or stickers marked a meter (3 feet) of social distancing space from nearby streets to ballot booths.
  2. Masked poll workers checked temperatures of arriving voters and whisked anyone with a fever (37.5 degrees Celsius) or not wearing a mask to separate areas to vote, sanitizing the facilities after each one.
  3. Voters who passed the fever screening were given sanitizing gel and disposable plastic gloves before entering booths.
  4. Those in self- quarantine were provided separate timing to cast their votes and escorted properly by following social distancing and disinfect guidelines.
  5. Hospitalized patients or those under two-week quarantines were allowed to vote by mail.

With this strategy, South Korea used the national election as an opportunity to screen COVID-19 in its whole population in one go. This could be termed as the largest ever screening of COVID-19 in a single day through which South Korea prepared COVID-19 status data of its 66.2 percent voters. With such a huge data in hand plus those collected from the previous testing campaigns, South Korea implemented weekly testing for workforce deployed in the supply of essential services. By April 30, South Korea fully controlled the spread of the virus and reported no new cases in the country.

However, the experience of France in conducting municipal elections was entirely different – historically low turnout less than 45 percent, no significant gain for the ruling party, and rise of the traditional left and right wings. France is among the worst-hit countries of Europe from the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of cases and as well as fatalities. As per the WHO situation dashboard on May 8, about 26,188 people had lost their lives in France while South Korea registered 256 deaths. France had witnessed a maximum of 2003 deaths in a day on April 4.

India, the largest democracy of the world, also choose to defer the elections for 18 Rajya Sabha seats in March 2020 to which no new dates have been announced so far. However, due to an imminent constitutional crisis in the state of Maharashtra, the Election Commission of India has decided to hold elections for nine vacant seats in the Legislative Council on May 21. But, in this election, the voters will be only 288 members of the state assembly, not the general public. However, India has a bigger challenge of holding elections for the Bihar Assembly in October-November, 2020.

Impact of COVID-19 on Election Campaigns

The days of big political rallies are over. In the pre-COVID period, Donald Trump was seen addressing huge political rallies and gatherings. With the elections approaching, those rallies and gatherings were scheduled to intensify but now they are history.

Though the prevalence of social media was already pushing the political campaigns throughout the world towards the internet, COVID-19 has made it the only feasible option. There are two reasons – firstly, the memory of sufferings due to COVID-19 will be long-lasting, and secondly, the re-emergence of cases will haunt the people. South Korea, which is credited to combat the COVID-19 efficiently witnessed 25 new cases on May 8, despite the continuous implementation of all the measures of disinfection, weekly testing, and social distancing, etc. The sophisticated technologies of video conferencing, live streaming, social media, mobile apps, and new AI (Artificial Intelligence) based technological innovations will rule the election campaigns in the future. There may be public meetings but primarily in the form of focused groups. The door to door meeting and distribution of leaflets, pamphlets, election symbols, badges, and voting slips, etc., will also be tough in elections during the pandemic. All the modes of election campaigns based on the distribution of materials and public gatherings will be of minimum use in the post-pandemic world. All these items will shift on social media and internet-driven AI-based technologies.

Governance: Essential Supplies and Welfare Schemes

Maintaining the essential supplies to the people has been a herculean task for the governments throughout the world but the people have also tested the efficiency of their governments in this time of crisis. Barring a few cases of unfortunate incidents, the world has witnessed a new age of cooperation between public servants and the people they serve which is a learning for all but children in particular.

However, the services at the time of COVID-19 crisis will increase the expectations of people. The governments should prepare for a complete overhaul of their policies and systems for providing essentials to the people particularly the poor. The improved and customized versions of the Delhi Government's initiative for home delivery of services and commodities could be a model for public deliveries. The robots are also being used in the US and India to assist the medicos and healthcare workers. There will be huge scope for robots, drones, and new AI-based technologies to improve public delivery systems, surveillance, and monitoring.

The social welfare schemes will also face transformation with governments opting for direct benefit transfers to the needy. There will be no mediators between the State and people they serve but the technology. Today, entire governance has shifted on internet-driven technologies and working efficiently. The official orders, circulars, public communication, security deployment, crowed management, delivery and monitoring of essentials supplies, etc., are being conducted with the help of internet-driven technologies. Experts suggest that the inspection and diagnostic robots will play an important role in all the spheres of governance from the delivery of essentials to healthcare to administration.

The Way Ahead

Even if vaccines and medicines are discovered, the world is going to change permanently. The psychological and behavioral changes experienced by the people worldwide will continue to haunt them for long to avoid unseen outbreaks and crisis. Furthermore, the forces of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world. This is because the technological innovations of the 4IR are of great help for mankind during the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The economies should prepare themselves for a complete overhaul of their policies and systems of governance particularly those related to the supply of essential commodities and services. Besides enhancing their preparedness in handling the possible COVID-19 outbreaks, these reforms will increase their pandemic resilience and minimize the vulnerability against unseen disease outbreaks and climate disasters in the future. However, the most important requirements are access to affordable internet and energy to use technologies.

Democracies will have to reform for survival. As of now, the deferments of elections may look like the only alternative but they are not viable solutions in the long run. Like Egypt, the sitting government may take this opportunity to increase their powers arbitrarily which will not be good for a healthy democracy. We also have the experience of South Korea that used the election process to screen almost the entire population on a single day and enhanced its response plan to COVID-19. Such experiences will go a long way in developing pandemic resilient communities. In addition to the electoral process, the pandemic will also impact meetings of the elected representatives including seating arrangements in their respective houses as per the requirements of the social distancing. This was evident in Nepal where samples of 441 lawmakers and staff were collected for testing COVID-19 on May 8, before the commencement of the budget session.

The democracies throughout the world are mandated to hold sessions of their houses before the expiry of a certain period. For instance, the Indian parliament is mandated to have three sessions – Budget Session (February to May), Monsoon Session (July to September), and Winter Session (November to December). The Central government will be required to make arrangements for the upcoming Monsoon Session so is the problem with all the state governments of India. Similarly, the democracies throughout the world are running against time to organize the sessions of their respective legislatures. Their response to the imminent crisis will not only decide their fate but also impact geopolitical equations.

This is a high time for countries throughout the world particularly developing economies to invest in capacity building to face the post-pandemic world with the help of 4IR technological innovations. International organizations should assist developing countries in such endeavors.

Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) is an initiative of VisionRI and aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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