While March 11, 2020, is the day COVID officially became a global pandemic, the end date remains uncertain. Restrictions have been lifted in most of the world; yet health risks persist and countries are struggling to recover from the economic and social aftermath. The most prescient ones are capturing lessons from the COVID pandemic and preparing for the next wave or new pandemics.
In this sense, COVID serves as the harbinger of our disaster-prone ‘new normal’: a world where governments struggle with multiple complex emergencies that are, on average, more severe, overlapping, of greater scope, and more frequent than ever before. Anything resembling ‘victory’ is likely to prove elusive and ephemeral. In addition to pandemics and climate-related disasters, increased incidences of violent conflict and cyber warfare loom large. Referring to the wide range of possible calamities, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sounded the alarm in 2021, asserting that “the world is at the edge of the abyss and moving in the wrong direction.”
Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing that disasters are inevitable, governments, political institutions and civil society need to focus efforts on developing strategies and building capacities that encompass – in the framing of expert Juliette Kayyem – not just the ‘right of boom’ (post-disaster) responses, but also those ‘left of boom’ contexts (before the disaster occurs) where actions can help to prevent or mitigate the crisis.
In terms of democratic freedoms and processes, COVID’s impact has been a net negative, exacerbating a trend of more than 15 years of growing authoritarianism. In some cases, democratic governance has been a casualty of power grabs and deliberate autocratic aggrandizement. In other instances, elected leaders couldn’t marshal the wherewithal to act and often lacked the necessary authority, institutions and processes that would enable them to respond rapidly, effectively and democratically to the crisis conditions.
Right of Boom: Building back democratically
Even before Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine roiled the grains and energy markets, pandemic recovery was shaping up to be an inequitable slog. The world’s poorest 20% experienced the steepest loss in incomes over the last two years, with women hit particularly hard in terms of income, jobs and safety. The number of severely food insecure people doubled since 2020, totaling 276 million. Compounding the problem, the ability of governments to mount vigorous recovery programs is limited due to crushing public debt and steep increases in debt service payments.
A sustainable COVID-19 recovery depends on the ability of societies to build back democratically through transparent and accountable policy making that addresses public needs and interests. Throughout the pandemic, NDI has supported partners in using democratic institutions and processes to find and deliver effective development solutions. NDI’s framework for democratically-led COVID-19 recovery centers on the following principles:
Shoring up democratic institutions: Work through and invest in recovery strategies that engage and strengthen institutions, not just central governments, but also local governments and legislatures;
Engaging the furthest behind: Combine targeted efforts that help organize women and other marginalized communities, with wider efforts that incentivize participatory and inclusive policymaking.
Strengthening information integrity: Counter disinformation through inclusive and evidence-based trust building and two-way communications strategies.
Combating COVID corruption: Build in transparency, monitoring and oversight measures to ensure that recovery resources get to those who need it most.
Preventing violence and unrest by renewing the social contract: Emphasize pluralism through deliberative practices that foster dialogue within and across communities to help solve public-service delivery challenges.
Left of Boom: Gearing Up Democratically
Given the profound impacts on democratic development combined with the projected increase in disaster frequency and severity, leaders also need to prepare for future crises. While the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence are longstanding, they are insufficient on their own to meet the complex challenges at hand. In an era of authoritarian resurgence, crisis preparedness must move beyond technical exercises to take democratic dynamics and vulnerabilities into account and include deliberate measures aimed at shoring up democratic institutions and processes
Around the world, NDI is working with partners to enhance preparedness for future crises in ways that consider the democracy-disaster nexus. Similar to the building back democratically framework deployed in ‘right of boom’ contexts, preparedness programs should put democratic engagement at the center through activities, including the following:
Adaptation of parliamentary rules of procedure, protocols, select committees and technologies that support a more agile response in future emergency contexts;
Designing legal frameworks for emergency measures consistent with international human rights law to ensure they are proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory and have a time limit;
Design of expedited emergency procurement procedures that reflect transparency commitments, citizen monitoring mechanisms, complaints mechanisms, and parliamentary oversight;
Eliminating demographic data gaps through comprehensive information on the whole population, with special focus on outreach to women and other marginalized groups, to ensure the emergency response accurately reflects public needs and input;
Democratic institutions and processes took a hit during COVID. Unless democratic leaders prepare for and respond to future crises in ways that are effective and consistent with democratic principles, they risk jeopardizing the very institutions and norms that are essential for sustainable recovery and democratic development in the long term.
Authors: Kristen Sample, Director of Democratic Governance, National Democratic Institute
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.