COVID-19 is most notably known for bringing profound changes to our everyday lives: online work and school, the closing of store fronts, and a monotonous routine over the last year. I, frankly, am tired of talking about the pandemic, let alone living through one. But COVID has also acted as a catalyst for detrimental alterations to our beloved democracy.
According to Freedom Houses’ latest report, 2020 marked the 15th consecutive year in the decline of democracy. The Financial Times reports that in 2020, three-quarters of the global population lived in countries where freedom was falling. The FT’s editorial board argues that hopes of a post-Cold War era have crumbled.
The most drastic decline in democracy is seen in the world’s wealthiest and most populous democracies — the US and India.
President Trump’s election and term accelerated this retraction in freedom and rights, but the assault on democracy began long before his inauguration.
In India, according to Freedom House’s assessment, the nation went from “free” to “partly free” as the erosion of rights continues under Narendra Modi. And across the globe, from Latin America to Sub-Saharan Africa to Hungary, leaders have used COVID-19 to justify a crack-down on liberties.
During a shifting global balance, autocratic regimes are seizing their opportunity. Beijing has combined its rapid economic success with its repressive one-party rule, seeing 100 million individuals out of poverty and allowing the Asian power to claim its superior system.
In Russia, Putin continues to hide behind a veil of democracy, just short of becoming an all-out autocracy.
But how can this be? Didn’t the fall the of the Berlin Wall mark a turning point for democracy? Isn’t the US supposed to embody freedom? These seem like fair questions. However, democracy is not just taking to the streets in protest and demanding rights. Democracy is upheld and protected by our institutions: freedom of the press, fair elections, and addressing the fundamentals of a nation’s woes and grievances.
The pendulum of democracy will continue to swing, from an over-correction in one direction to another, but Western democracies must lead by example.
The EU-Atlantic nations cannot convert autocratic regimes on their own, and most certainly not through hard-power. Rather, our Western democracies should and must use a multilateral approach to support groups advocating for rights and democracy.