Rethinking democracy during Covid-19 times

At Sparknews, we believe that they can also be great opportunities to adapt and rethink our relations with the world. As a team who wants to ignite new narratives that can accelerate the ecological and social transition, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what will be the shape of the global collective story emerging from the current worldwide sanitary emergency. In this week #SparkMinute, let’s focus on democracy with local examples of solidarity, of businesses rethinking their models, and of articles and opinions that can nourish our imagination.

Government of the people by the people for the people

In the assemblies of ancient Greece, the skeptron was a simple stick that passed from hand to hand and conferred the right to speak to whoever held it. Much more than the ballot, this ‘talking’ stick could represent now a desirable ideal for some of our struggling democracies. How can we reconcile the democratic debate with the pandemic’s constraints? At all levels, the system’s flaws become apparent. How much room for manoeuvre do local elected representatives have? How can we ensure those making crucial decisions hear the citizen’s expectations? Can a virus undermine human rights? Is an opposing political discussion even possible, considering the constraints of a pandemic and public health actions? Could the state of emergency’s measures become permanent, making control and surveillance mechanisms widespread — and acceptable for most? Will freedom be another casualty in the fight against the coronavirus?

With lockdown measures drastically restricting the scope of how most of us experience social reality, we have turned almost exclusively to our homes, our spaces, our families and friends, and ‘disconnected’ from the public place. Maintaining democracy under these conditions could be difficult. We could unearth the Greek spektron, giving every citizen a voice. After all, citizen awareness, civic participation, trustworthy information and transparent institutions exist to ensure public well-being. In mid-April, Jean-François Delfraissy, chairman of the French Scientific Council, said that civil society should be involved in the health crisis’ management, in order to avoid people from criticizing the authorities and accusing them of being authoritarian or ‘out of touch’. As the South Korean example shows, including society in the development of public policies is key to the success of active risk and disaster management.

Worldwide, new democratic practices are emerging from our current exceptional circumstances. In April, more than 1,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv against Benjamin Netanyahu and his government — while keeping a 1-meter distance from one another. Youth climate strikes continue — online. On March 28, members of housing movements across Europe protested from their balconies and windows, making noise and putting up banners. Last week, similar massive protests were held from thousands of Argentinian balconies —of course, using casseroles—, to object the release of violent convicted inmates from the country’s prisons due to the outbreak’s risks. Across the globe, workers commemorated May Day both online and on the streets. On April 4, the French National Assembly launched Le Jour d’après, a citizen debate and consultation platform, including workshops, supported by 65 MPs who committed to support the resulting proposed measures. There was even a workshop called “Democracy in the face of the crisis: renewing the democratic pact the day after”.

Is it up to elected representatives and politicians alone to rethink our system of governance, our political priorities and our public services? Or will we, as citizens, seize the tools available to us to engage in public debate, informed deliberation and experimentation with participative democracy methods? As Samuel Hayat reminds us, “Democracy, as an idea and as a practice, needs people to participate, to adhere, to believe in it.

When organizations walk the extra mile

Washington State’s local government built up the trust between elected officials and the state’s residents, mainly by letting public health experts lead briefings and policies. Fighting fake news is also essential, so the World Health Organization is working with big tech companies to make falsehoods harder to find both during online queries and on news streams.

Can we still vote while social distancing? Elections are one of the most critical moments of representative democracy, and “vote at home” practices could provide a solution during lockdown. The American states of Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Utah have all implemented statewide all-mail election campaigns. Read more on the Washington Monthly.

Lawmakers have been working to ensure they can continue to pass emergency legislation for their communities. Last March in Arkansas, elected officials convened inside of a basketball arena, while legislators in Ohio voted from separate rooms. New York senators passed a resolution allowing them to vote by “remote means, including but not limited to teleconference or videoconference.” You can find more examples on how legislating gets done in times of coronavirus on Route Fifty.

Civic technology has proven a powerful ally in keeping the pandemic at bay in Taiwan. In this Foreign Affairs article, you can learn how the country used a mix of technology, activism and citizen participation to tackle the health crisis. From Digital Minister Tang live-streaming all her meetings to broad online engagement and community-driven tools development, the Taiwanese government was able to uphold public trust and a two-way flow of information in the midst of the outbreak.

Local initiatives against global disorder

Even at home, people still use their right to protest and freedom of speech. In April, Polish human rights groups launched an online protestagainst a controversial bill on abortion. A day later, German activists protested against the EU’s treatment of refugees. On May 9, several civil society organisations and citizens across Europe will take part in Citizens take over Europe — a day-long online event to discuss current European problems and co-develop solutions from a political, social and individual perspective.

When Fridays for Future moved its weekly climate strikes to the World Wide Web, they send millions of pictures and political demands across social media platforms using the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline. But they also launched the online show Talks for Future, where activists can engage in discussions with academic experts. Activist Naomi Klein was among the first speakers to appear on it on March 27, along with Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, climate change and health leader for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Let’s imagine further

In this lengthy op-ed for the Boston Review, Archon Fung, political science professor and author of Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, argues that Covid-19 requires more democracy, not less. Drawing examples from different parts of the United States, he examines how active democratic citizenship has driven some of the most important American achievements, through social justice, citizen-generated information local leadership and making the leadership accountable. You can read more here.

In this chilling interview, CNN journalist and director of the investigative website Maria Ressaillustrates the links between democracy and independent journalism. Since President Rodrigo Duterte’s election in the Philippines in 2016, massive divisive misinformation campaigns have been orchestrated on social media by the country’s government . How can democracy survive in such a context? Maria Ressa insists: gatekeeping lies out the public space is an absolute necessity. You can listen here.

Arundhati Roy is the author of novels such as The God of Small Things, as well as a collection of essays written by her during the last 20 years, My Seditious Heart. In this discussion, organised by the nonprofit publisher Haymarket Books, the Indian activist explains how we can think of the pandemic as a portal.  While the virus exposes injustices, inequalities and flaws in democracies, she says we can choose to walk through it all with little luggage, ready to imagine a different world — and to fight for it. You can watch the discussion here.

At Sparknews, are convinced that the coronavirus global outbreak will lead us to draw valuable lessons about our globalized economic system. Whether on matters like education, solidarity, biodiversity or our way of work, it will be up to us to return to the status quo once the health crisis is over, or to reshape everything. Discover our #SparkMinute on education, energy, work, our diet, and biodiversity.


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