The global response to the spread of COVID-19, and the role the state has played, will have a drastic impact on the terms of our social contract both locally and globally. French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted in an interview with The Financial Times that the extensive response will undoubtedly cause, “… a very deep anthropological shock…[for which] there is no precedent in history.” As the world begins to normalize, there is no longer any question of the state’s ability to impose a strict economic agenda for the public good. Gone will be the excuses for lack of action on existential threats to humanity like climate change. However, how should democracies respond to this “anthropological shock” while there are active efforts globally to undermine personal liberties and republicanism?
The enforcement of public health measures and the subsequent expansion of health facilities and testing has demonstrated the need for a rapid expansion in state capacity and efficiency. In France, the government has nationalized key supplies and around the world, governments have had to declare states of emergency to act outside their constitutional parameters. Governments have claimed force majeure for the temporary suspensions of constitutional freedoms with the aim of preventing a national health crisis. And while these suspensions seem to fall within the government’s role in protecting the general welfare, the resulting moral hazard will revolve around when and if governments will relinquish this new role.
Of course, this strategy isn’t without criticism. In the United States, President Trump and his supporters in the media have capitalized on the ideological fault lines in the American psyche. Staunch constitutionalists and libertarians often invoke Benjamin Franklin who is known to have said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The aforementioned argument is not limited domestically. Instead, the Trump administration has led the global charge in criticizing the Chinese response to the virus and, by proxy, its so-called best practices.
There is no question that the spread of COVID-19 is as much a geostrategic opportunity as it is a threat. Despite the embarrassing news cycle in China around the virus, Xi Jinping’s government has pursued an unabashed international strategy of global criticism and misinformation. Influenced by a suite of measures that include debt forgiveness and health aid, China’s allies been used as mouthpieces for the positive effects that the long leash of authoritarianism provides. In China, the state has supported big tech companies to pursue its strategy. For instance, companies like WeChat and Alipay have rolled out a color based QR code per person depending on their danger or safety. Other technologies allow the government access to personal records and digital tracking.
In response to global criticism of its policies, including the expulsion of American journalists from China and Hong Kong, Chinese propagandists have been hard at work. Chinese government agencies and media outlets like CGTN say in ads, “the balance between individual rights and public safety is an ever-changing equation.” In relation to the extreme lockdown measures China enforced the ad continues to say, “people have come to terms with the new norms.” There is no question that despite the negative effects COVID-19 has had on Chinese growth, Xi Jinping remains steadfast in undermining Western Institutions (including the WHO) and promoting his own vision of governance.
However exacerbated these trends may be by countries like China and Russia, the West is feeling these effects independently. Highly leveraged firms and minimally effective monetary conditions have forced states to scale rapidly, spending up to 10% of GDP (in the case of the United States). These measures include the deployment of national guards and strict policing of movement. The devastating impact that lockdown measures will have on a post-virus Europe will make policies like those pursued by the French government difficult to dismantle once those same companies return to a backwards economy. In the developed world, this will create a permanently bloated and indebted state which will struggle to return to growth. This is especially concerning to global democracies who have fallen prey to populist regimes, on both sides of the spectrum, that are antagonistic to democracy. Authoritarianism in Europe and even in the United States would surely harm this delicate balance between liberty and security.
It is incumbent, then, on Western leaders to rush to vaccinate democracy against the forces that would wish to roll back its freedoms and safeguards. Strong privacy protections for personal records and additional data security would be an excellent start. Stringent regulation on the role companies play in providing the government with geolocation services as well as an acute attention to foreign investment in critical infrastructure is critical. Further, there must be an active effort to combat the instinct to dismantle institutions and federalism. In the United States, crises have continuously expanded the executive branch where popular representation is exchanged for quick governance. Governments should consider serious proposals that consider the continued growth of the executive. Reexamining the popular election of Senators, for instance, would place states at the forefront of policy and restore a check to a much stronger presidency.
The last, and most important, take away should revolve around a multilateral response to the anti-democratic forces that would like to find republics sick and weak. The global resolve arising from this crisis must be directed at those actors who dissuade the accurate collection and dissemination of information to its citizens. It should be directed at those actors who use public health crises to expand their political control and also those in the West who would like to dismantle the rule-based international order that has lifted millions out of poverty and promoted a global vision of human rights and representation. This is especially true in emerging markets in Africa and Latin America that will drive global growth in this century. Democracy is resilient but must be safeguarded from the impulses of centralized populism and suspensions of privacy in exchange for efficacy. To reflect again on Mr. Franklin, who said after the Constitution was ratified, we only have our “…republic, if [we] can keep it.”