The shaky roots of democracy revealed by a pandemic
Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of change around the world. From the way we live and work to the way we think and act—everything has gone through dramatic change due to the ongoing pandemic. Democracy has not been spared either, with its very foundation shaken to the core because of the pandemic's wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts witnessed over the last 18 months.
A report by Freedom House—an organisation actively advocating to strengthen democracy around the world—revealed that the condition of democracy and human rights has worsened in 80 countries, with "particularly sharp deterioration in struggling democracies and highly repressive states." The organisation's president, Michael J Abramowitz, suggested: "What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy… Governments in every part of the world have abused their powers in the name of public health, seizing the opportunity to undermine democracy and human rights."
From strong European nations such as Hungary, where the parliament had initially voted to give the right and authority to Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree in the name of the coronavirus, to the more struggling nations such as Chile that had postponed constitutional assembly polls in view of rising Covid-19 cases—democracy around the world has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Freedom House has identified four major issues that have become even more complicated due to Covid-19: lack of government transparency and information on Covid-19; corruption; lack of protection for vulnerable populations; and government abuses of power.
These challenges are universal; the case is not so different in Bangladesh either, where press freedom, human rights, and the performance of vital institutions have all been affected during the pandemic.
The government in Bangladesh has perhaps been less ruthless in leveraging the challenges posed by the pandemic to erode people's democratic rights, as opposed to some other democratic governments that have pressed home their own vindictive agendas—case in point: India, where the minority Muslims have been targeted during anti-Covid drives (The Wire published a column titled "The Coronavirus Has Morphed Into an Anti-Muslim Virus" elaborating this socio-political injustice)—but it cannot be denied that democracy in the country has suffered overall.
The government's lack of transparency regarding its Covid-19 management plan has been highlighted by the media multiple times, and has caused the common people immense suffering. The government's mass immunisation drives and vaccine sourcing strategies suffer not only from a lack of proper planning and execution, but also from a lack of clarity, accountability and a meaningful engagement with the public. The government has yet to elaborate on how it plans to inoculate 70 percent of the population, and its measures so far can at best be termed as "kneejerk reactions" to the various Covid-19 waves the country has experienced.
Similarly, the lack of transparency and accountability in the government's plans to distribute relief goods among the affected people have allowed these drives to be mired in corruption and misappropriation, as many public representatives embezzled rice, among other relief commodities. While punitive action has been taken by the authorities in some cases, there has been no initiative to address the systemic loopholes that allowed this to happen in the first place, potentially leaving room for future transgressions.
And when the media reported these incidents, many journalists came under fire—or should one say sticks and weapons, as it happened in the case of SA Television district correspondent AH Bhuiyan Sajal. Sajal was beaten up by the henchmen of Amirganj Union Parishad Chairman Nasir Uddin Khan, when he and his colleagues were investigating Nasir's alleged involvement in the misappropriation of relief commodities.
One would also remember the government-imposed censorship on medical professionals—especially nurses—who were asked not to talk to the media amid reports of the shortages of PPE and meals, at the onset of the pandemic.
The government initially also warned that it would monitor the news outlets and social media, and the information they broadcast and share on Covid-19, to apparently stop the spread of fake information. In the face of protests, however, the government took a step back and only suggested keeping an eye on the social media platforms to observe if misinformation with regard to Covid-19 were being circulated.
In March 2020, the government also arrested six individuals for allegedly spreading misinformation about Covid-19. The Digital Security Act, which experts termed "draconian" due to its nature, has been used on multiple occasions to smother the dissenting voices.
Even the notorious colonial-era law, Official Secrets Act, 1923, has been used to supress press freedom. Prothom Alo journalist Rozina Islam, who has exposed many irregularities in the country's public health sector, has been sued under this act for the apparent theft of confidential official documents. Before handing her over to the law enforcement officials, health ministry officials confined her in their office for around five hours and also "searched" her, raising serious questions about the abuse of power by a quarter of state officials and their deep distrust of the free press.
While human rights, transparency, and press freedom are still struggling to rise above the challenges posed by the pandemic, the damage done to democracy and our democratic values are not permanent.
Some elements within the executive and the legislative bodies may have taken advantage of the pandemic for their own gains, but one can argue that many of the problems predate the pandemic. A case can even be made that the government, over all, has been comparatively pro-people during this time. However, we cannot ignore its shortcomings in fighting the pandemic (especially its indecisiveness and inefficiency in managing Covid-19 challenges), the corruption it has allowed to go on, and its suppression of free speech in the name of combating fake news.
The government, if it genuinely aspires to achieve a true democracy, must work on changing the system that enables the gagging of democracy. It can start by reforming and strengthening the democratic and regulatory institutions, the statutory bodies and other public sector institutions, including the Election Commission, the Bangladesh Public Service Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, various ministries, law enforcement bodies, and the central bank, among others. These institutions should be allowed and necessarily empowered to function with fairness and without external influence.
The government needs to identify the individuals who are using the pandemic to their advantage, and take punitive actions against them in order to make examples of these greedy, unscrupulous people who are hurting the democratic ethos of our nation in these trying times.
The authorities must demonstrate strong political will to flush out these elements and reset the system to salvage the democracy we so cherish and take pride in. Otherwise, the misdeeds of a few—albeit influential—will cause permanent damage to the democratic values of our nation. This scenario should not be desirable for anyone—most of all our democratically elected government.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb