The post COVID-19 challenge: a simple reset or a real change?


Herta Däubler-Gmelin

Jun, 2020

In the recent months of the COVID-19 crisis, many circumstances and expectations led to demands and action. However, governments have very simply and quickly returned to pre-COVID-19 policies and plans: the little change that took place is being reversed, and the very real weaknesses and gaps in public policy that were so glaringly evident during times of crises are already receding to a forgotten background.

On the other hand, citizens are increasingly demanding just the opposite of regression, calling for a further combination of innovation and improvement that would lead to a more sustainable society and political changes. They recognize that the crisis has shed a very clear light on the failings, weaknesses, injustice and harm in both local communities, as well as regional, domestic, and global cooperation.

As we continue to remain amidst the COVID-19 crisis, many of these demands still have the opportunity to ride on the current momentum. Some of them may change. And although the crisis is far from over, we can observe that many democratic governments have proven they are not categorically weaker or less efficient than authoritarian governments in responding to challenges. In principle, they are quite capable of acting quickly and efficiently, and, most importantly, are supported by civil societies and parliaments. Meanwhile, some more authoritarian governments have performed worse during this crisis, or even failed, in spite of their potential to issue and fulfill orders without delay. The potential of democratic governments is a key theme throughout the following insights.

Photo_ ResoluteSupportMedia_ Refugees_ CC BY 4.0

The implementation of the first measures against the disease in Germany

As a Central European German, I was most impressed by the COVID-19 shockwave and some of its outcomes in our region. It brought a sudden end to our quotidien lives, and rattled the feeling of security and control of our lives to which we felt entitled. In pre-COVID-19 times we felt that grave diseases or unknown viruses could be quickly counteracted, or at least cushioned, by a strong health service, qualified scientists, and the existence of a powerful and efficient welfare system, as had worked before with public health crises including HIV and Ebola. COVID-19 proved to us that this was a false security, as the virus demonstrated that public health considerations were not only a threat to vulnerable populations living in far away, disadvantaged and underdeveloped regions, but could extend to the entire globe, with wealthy and secure Europeans included.

The shock caused by this revelation has led to many interesting developments: neighbors looked out for their neighbors, especially attentive to the vulnerability of the elderly, and made themselves readily available to help. Another especially unusual occurrence in our democracies included how parliaments and politicians, often mistrusted, acted with unusual speed and received unheard of support from media and civil society. [1]

In Germany, a highly federalist country with very self reliant, autonomous regional states, this type of behavior is even more rare. These states all united together quickly to adapt to fairly constrictive federal emergency rules recommended by scientists to contain the infection: social distancing and a nearly total shutdown of schools and kindergartens, cultural events such as operas and theaters, businesses and special measures for public transport. Of course, compared to some other European countries, these activities were less restrictive than they could have been. Nevertheless, they touched upon the scope of several constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. In spite of the potential constitutional debate and implications, support for these emergency measures remained strong for weeks, although was of course influenced by additional and very expensive financial benefits that came along with these restrictions.

Accommodating the shock into a new everyday life

In looking at infection numbers, death toll, social and economic damage, this way of containing the COVID-19 crisis via new measures, engaging the participation and support of civil society, proved rather successful. It could in fact be described as more successful than in most of our neighboring countries, and even at least as successful as in authoritarian systems, in spite of their claiming to be more efficient in governing than in «Western democracies.»

Many democratic governments have proven they are not categorically weaker or less efficient than authoritarian governments in responding to challenges. In principle, they are quite capable of acting quickly and efficiently, and, most importantly, are supported by civil societies and parliaments.

As we enter into Phase 2 of eliminating crisis measures, most of the restrictions have been lifted, except for those of keeping distance and wearing protective masks. According to our federal system, each regional state was given the discretion to apply their own specific measures. While the central government worked closely with individual states in providing support and encouraging collaboration, the individual regions autonomously decided upon entering into Phase 2 and lifting restrictions on citizens rights and businesses. As such, the process of lifting the measures came about more quickly and was sometimes more efficient than in more centralized democracies like France, Spain or the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, during this stage, the unusual unanimous support for parliaments, parties and civil society quickly dwindled away. Conspiracy theories arose as the catastrophic scenes of Madrid or Lombardi did not happen, and many protests against the restrictions were initiated: some of the protesters denied the danger of COVID-19 entirely, but most of them focused on the costs that were entailed in containing the first wave of COVID-19. They especially highlighted the growing social divide, the lamentable isolation of many of the elderly in quarantined retirement homes and the neglect of children’s rights, in that they were deprived of education via the closing of schools and kindergartens.

Added to this, of course, were protests and complaints due to economic suffering, as millions of workers were affected, often facing unemployment, and both individuals and businesses faced mounting debt. There were criticisms as to the failure of European cooperation and solidarity, as most EU Member States acted only in accordance with their respective national interests. This and closing the previously border-free movement contradicted the transnational character of COVID-19. The rights of EU citizens were suppressed, and millions of those who daily commuted across borders were affected. European values were jeopardized, in addition to the damage inflicted on the European economy.

Cooperation and solidarity equally failed migrants and refugees in the camps of Greece, Italy, the Middle East, Turkey and Yemen. Already vulnerable, these groups did not receive nearly enough protection and support. In many cases, they faced restrictions or bans on movement, and were stigmatized as potential carriers of the virus by unfounded accusations, in large part due to an increasingly pervasive climate of xenophobia and scapegoating. Moreover, Asian and African countries, dependent on supplying industrialized countries as part of the current globalized system, were left on their own not only to deal with the virus, but also in facing mounting unemployment and poverty.

Photo_ Luc_ Diego de Alvear- CC BY 4.0

Five conclusions for a future of cooperation and sustainability

Given the above considerations, we must reflect on what needs to change in post COVID-19 times if we want to preserve the current momentum, and to contribute to an acceptable state of democracy and sustainability; we must continue to fight for the opportunities and rights of peoples and societies throughout the world. In light of this, I can draw at least five conclusions we can contemplate in moving forward:

1.  Immediate change is necessary and possible

In many of the lengthy discussions as to how to overcome the climate crisis, democratic governments often argued that they needed more time, and were unable to act swiftly given the potential economic damage that might result. As we have learned during the current crisis, time is running out, and we in fact must act with this supposedly impossible urgency.

Emergency measures sometimes resemble a dangerous infringement on human rights. During this crisis, we have witnessed valiant efforts by civil society, with creative solutions and innovation in confronting challenges.

We know it is possible, given the quick measures we have recently taken. In order to impede further damage and to provide for the possibility of a sustainable, green economy, we must bring to a halt the overexploiting of global resources. It is now more necessary than ever to provide for a cradle to cradle economy [2], as time runs out. Our respective governments have acted in light of COVID-19, what proves that far-reaching solutions are indeed possible, if the threat appears to be urgent enough. This resounds with the clear consequences that the climate crisis presents; we must restructure our management of this crisis and understand it as an utmost priority.

2.  Democracies are strong: civil society makes the difference

As previously mentioned, authoritarian governments have not proven to be either better, or more efficient. Purportedly, they face less restrictions in issuing orders, in comparison with democracies governed by rule of law, which have to incorporate civil society, legislatures and independent judiciaries. However, democracies arguably have important advantages: they receive more creative support from scientists and civil society, which is vital in handling a crisis. By comparison, China lost valuable weeks in fighting the virus, when instead addressing it as an imminent threat, they allowed the circulation of damaging rumors and unjustly prosecuting doctors that called for taking the threat seriously. Restricting free speech only to topics that are advantageous to the ruling structure is characteristic of authoritarian governments. This style of rule tends to impede the necessary transfer of unpopular news to high level decision makers, as lower officials fear their response and possible retribution and blame.

At the same time, in a paradoxical manner, even among our democratic regimes, emergency measures sometimes resemble a dangerous infringement on human rights. During this crisis, we have witnessed valiant efforts by civil society, with creative solutions and innovation in confronting challenges. Combined with these efforts, we must demand transparency and accountability from our governments. That is why strengthening democratic institutions and civil society is necessary.

3.  With globalization, change is vital

It is equally important during this time to change our benchmarks, given the predominant economic globalization dominated by the big business interests. A system focused only on serving such interests leads to a deepening global divide, and neglects human rights and opportunities for peoples all over the world. As a result, we must remodel, renew and strengthen regional and global institutions, which requires cooperation at all levels. Additionally, we have to understand and mitigate or even remedy the harmful consequences of globalization, those which lead to the overexploitation of natural resources as a result of destroying more and more natural reserves in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These destructive patterns consequently contribute to the climate crisis, armed conflicts and to increasing migration flows, perhaps even adding to the possible epidemics and unknown illnesses that affect all populations.

4.  More cooperation is needed

In Europe, Member States must focus on improved cooperation, not only in light of the current crisis, but also given the various challenges that the group faces. Recent decisions as to common EU funding directed towards supporting individuals, institutions and damaged economies might be a beginning; however, it must be followed by clear and efficient steps.

From a global perspective, it is clear that the unilateral decisions that have been pursued by certain countries during this crisis are not aligned with the spirit of urgent solidarity, and in fact works as a counterbalance to progress.

5.  Bridging the divide in our society

Finally, we observed the COVID-19 crisis deepening the gap in society: the poor and weak became poorer and weaker. Most affected were migrants, single mothers, elderly people in pensions homes and homeless people. The most vulnerable in our societies, clearly facing insecurity and precarious situations, are threatened by even further insecurity and instability. The few social protections that they enjoy are put into a harsh focus.

On the other hand, a lot of people with stable jobs and a good income were barely affected at all. This has occurred in other societal crises, including health, economic and climate crises. Each time our societies face challenges, the gap between the vulnerable and the elite is brought to light, and becomes further entrenched. As we have witnessed in this crisis, we are capable of immediate action. We must ensure that rather than reactionary measures, we strive to incorporate fairness in addressing and structuring a post-pandemic society.

[1]  During the first weeks of the crisis, scientific institutions and experts such as the Robert Koch-institute, the Johns Hopkins University or the virologist Christian Drosten, became protagonists not only as advisors for public policy, but also reference for the public opinion.

[2]  Like the one proposed by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, or other adepts of the circular economy, for an industrial revolution committed to ecology.