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2021 challenge: End the pandemic and strengthen democracy


1 January 2021 06:18 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The New Year begins with the hope of ending the pandemic but bigger challenges lie ahead. Pic AFP


At the stroke of midnight, we bade adieu to 2020 regarded as the worst ever year in living memory. But blame not the year that saw the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis after crisis, affecting economy, employment, education and many other vital sectors.  Through these difficulties, 2020 tried to teach us many lessons, but there were only a few takers.

The year emphasised unity in diversity – and only through unity, could we solve the planet’s problems. Such unity is our long-term investment to face crises worse than the pandemic in the future. Do not forget the climate change, the negative effects of which can wipe out countries off the world map, cause global hunger, bring about extreme weather conditions, and set off natural disasters with the root cause being our greed and callousness. Climate change calamities could be best tackled only if nations grasp that their destinies are tied to the common destiny of all people.

In the pandemic, there were opportunities to become more humane and end conflicts, global hunger, racism and many other social injustices. To use the modern technical jargon, we had the opportunity to restore the global system to the default ‘factory’ settings, go to the original state of sanity, become once again one global family and realise that our survival lies in unity in diversity. Either we swim together or sink together. 
But alas, as positive signs emerge and multiple brands of vaccines roll out of production processes indicating that the end of the pandemic is not far away, nations are spurning the unity message or internationalism and getting back to the usual hostile competition driven by national interests. 

Although the pandemic was initially thought to be a great leveller as it affected the rich and poor nations alike, at the year’s end, it was not to be so.  While the anti-COVID-19 vaccine, touted as the best possible gift for the New Year, is being sent to rich countries in abundance, poor countries, already neck deep in debt, have neither the money needed to buy the vaccines nor the infrastructure facilities to store them.

Yes, the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative backed by 172 countries, including rich European nations, offers some hope for poor countries, but the initiative suffers from lack of funds to buy enough vaccines for the people in poor nations. Remember, if the pandemic is to end, it has to be vanquished wherever it is found. So the quicker the vaccine reaches the poor nations, the faster will be the pandemic’s end.

Ending the pandemic is not the only challenge we face in 2021. Equally important is restoration of democracy and respect for human rights. During the pandemic, democracy suffered. Many nations drifted towards authoritarianism, with ultranationalist politicians entrenching themselves in the seats of power.  Even European Union members Hungary and Poland had the chutzpah to reject the EU’s rule-of-law conditions linked to aid and concessions. During the pandemic, governments became strong at the cost of people’s freedom and 
human rights. 

According to a survey done by Freedom House, a US-based global democracy promoting body, the southern African state of Malawi, was the only nation where democracy made progress during the pandemic, while democracy and respect for human rights regressed in as many as 80 nations.
The London-based The Economist magazine in its yearend editorial picked Malawi as the ‘Country of the Year’ over New Zealand whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was hailed worldwide for her success not only in curbing the pandemic’s spread in her nation, but also holding democratic elections and being a powerful global voice against ultranationalist racism. 

While New Zealand’s democratic credentials are no big surprise, Malawi’s democratic transformation was remarkable, as it moved from rigged elections and sham democracy to people power democracy with judges having the backbone to reject suitcases of bribes, defy the authoritarian president, Peter Mutharika, and declare his election null and void, thus paving the way for the people to elect a president of their choice.  “Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects. For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year,” the Economist said justifying its pick.

Sri Lanka, too, held a free-and-fair general election in 2020 amidst the pandemic. But democracy is defined not by elections alone. As the late US civil rights activist and veteran Congressman John Lewis said in his last political essay, “democracy is not a state; it is an act.” Elaborating on John Lewis’s definition, the US vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, in her victory speech said democracy is not guaranteed, we have to fight for it. “Democracy is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. There is joy in it and there is progress,” she said.

Undermining Parliamentary supremacy and the principles of separation of powers, the Sri Lankan government adopted the 20th Amendment to the constitution in October in what was seen as a reversal of democracy’s progress. The government justified it on the basis that a strong executive presidency was necessary to ensure national security and for economic development. But this argument is contentious. In the long-run, strong governments assure neither security of the citizens nor inclusive development. 

For democracy-loving people, also a cause for concern is the Sri Lankan government’s reluctance to accommodate a minority community’s legitimate and reasonable demand. Insisting that minorities must abide by the country’s law on the basis of one-country-one-law, hardline government members and their supporters are opposing the Muslims’ request to bury their loved ones who die of COVID-19.  Their actions and slogans indicate a strong push towards the tyranny of the majority where the majority community makes rules to promote its interests above the interest of the minority communities. From a perspective of democracy, it is oppression if the minorities are asked to follow irrational regulations drafted without their participation or consent and without a scientific basis.  One-country-one law should not imply the tyranny of the majority or should not come at the expense of unity in diversity which was the message the pandemic tried to teach us.

For democracy lovers, there is hope in the New Year with Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump as president of the United States. With the change of government in Washington, it is hoped that racism-driven politics, which outgoing president Trump encouraged, will be condemned to the hall of shame and that democracy promotion will become a priority. Such democracy promotion at global level is of paramount importance to prevent nations from sliding towards authoritarianism -- more so, in view of authoritarian China emerging as the most powerful economy in the next few years. Needless to say, in a China-led world order, democracy and human rights will have little or no place.

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