International treaties and agreements typically rely on good-faith implementation from member states, but nations often fail to live up to their agreements. Recent research by Bakke and Mitchell has revealed that these same nations often enact measures designed to repress civil society, so as to avoid shining a light on this non-compliant behaviour. At the same time, a number of nations have used the Coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for further seizing power and restricting civil liberties at home. These trends thus raise the questions of what this pandemic will do to democratic governance, as well as the faithful implementation of international treaties and agreements. Additionally, what will such repression do for developing nations and how will international organisations, such as the IMF, the United Nations and the World Bank react.
In this podcast, four experts from the UCL Department of Political Science/School of Public Policy treat these issues and examine the hard questions facing the world as we look towards the end of lockdown.
Interviewer(s): Colin Provost
Respondent(s): Dr Kristin Bakke, Dr Rod Adouharb, Dr Julie Norman, Dr Melanie Garson
INT: Hello, and welcome to the third instalment of our podcast symposium on the politics of Covid-19, brought to you by the Department of Political Science and School of Public Policy at University College London. My name is Colin Provost, I’m an Associate Professor of Public Policy in the department and I’m your host for today’s discussion. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of our lives. Understanding the social, economic and political impacts of Covid and how we respond to them in policy terms is vital. The PS Online podcasts are here to help us make sense of what is going on. In the last session, we examined the morality of governing under Covid-19, a topic that prepares us well for today’s discussion, which is entitled Domestic Repression and International Order – The Plight of Human Rights after Covid-19. International treaties and agreements typically rely on good faith implementation in member states, but nations often fail to live up to their agreements. These same nations often enact measures designed to restrict and repress civil society so as to avoid shining a light on this non-compliant behaviour. At the same time, a number of nations have used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for further ceasing power and restricting civil liberties at home. These trends thus raise questions on what this pandemic will do to democratic governance as well as the faithful implementation of international treaties and agreements. Here to discuss these issues with me are four distinguished scholars from the UCL Department of Political Science and School of Public Policy. Professor Kristin Bakke is Professor of Political Science and International Relations. Dr Rod Adouharb is Associate Professor of International Relations. Dr Julie Norman is Teaching Fellow in International Politics and International Relations. And finally, Dr Melanie Garson is Senior Teaching Fellow in Conflict Resolution and International Security. Welcome to you all and thank you for being here today. Before we’d begin, I’d like to ask each of you, what’s been a key observation for you, more broadly, regarding the Covid crisis. Something that has stuck with you. Kristin Bakke, if we would start with you?
KB: Hi, and thank you for hosting this and chairing this, Colin. A few initial reflections on the government responses to Covid-19. There are many things that has struck me about this crisis, but one of them is the variety of government responses. And across the world we’ve seen governments limiting our freedoms to movement and assembly in unprecedented ways and several of these steps, social distancing measures, encouragement to stay at home, limits to the number of people who can gather in one place, have been necessary to fight the pandemic, and I think many of us would agree, have been necessary to fight the pandemic. But other steps may not be necessary, such as limits to freedom of expression. Now under human rights conventions, governments are allowed to or can adopt some measures that limit civil liberties, such as people’s right to public assembly in order to protect public health. These exceptions are not to be used by governments to do whatever they want and what we’re seeing now is a concern that several governments are using Covid-19 as an excuse to impose restrictions. Many of them perhaps long in the making that will outlive the pandemic and that’s one of the concerns that I would like to talk more about today and that has sort of struck me about the political responses to Covid-19.
INT: Great, thank you very much. Julie Norman, what has stuck with your during the crisis?
JN: Hi, thanks, Colin. I’ve been looking at it more from the point of view of citizens and activists and I think we’ve actually seen a resetting of both horizontal and vertical dynamics. And when I say that I mean horizontally, even in light of physical distancing, we’ve seen people finding new ways to engage and social solidarity and community, despite those restrictions, so, I’m very interested in that. And vertically, we’re also seeing shifts in how people see compliance or deference to the government and to authority, and so, people who normally maybe wouldn’t question authority so much, are starting to do so, under the pandemic and under the regulations that have been put in place. So, I think these two elements when you combine those with increasing grievances, make this time actually potentially very ripe for activism and protest and social movements.
INT: Great, a very pertinent observation for our discussion later on. Rod Adouharb, what has stuck with you?
RA: So, I think just to follow up on what Kristin was saying, it’s become really clear to me that governments are responding to Covid in ways that are, they’re really kind of acting strategically to take advantage of the situation, to go after their political opponents. I suppose for people who are interested in the link between threat and oppression, the notion of a pandemic providing cover for governments to kind of utilise this for their own purpose is something quite new. So, we tend to think of threats as being armed, political actors or other groups who are kind of disrupting life in some way, rather than a disease as such.
INT: Okay, thank you very much. And finally, Melanie Garson, what has stuck with you during the crisis?
MG: Well, the timing of this crisis has stuck. I was towards the end of teaching my cyber warfare course and my head was very much in there and thinking, at the moment, that everybody was thinking about a physical virus, we were all rushing to our computers. Typing in registration to everything on every aspect and really not thinking about cyber hygiene as much as we’re thinking about our physical hygiene and what could be the potential knock-on effect for that for critical infrastructure systems. And particularly, with suddenly the need to keep our health system secure, how much at risk we were putting that in place. And with the average there being 80,000 cyber-attacks a day, in normal times, how much—with our kids being online and our kids being online, what was going to be the exponential effect of that. And kind of tracking how that’s playing out with having seen attacks on hospitals, on the GHS in the US, having seen the Iranian attack on the Israeli water systems, and thinking about how that’s going to contribute in the effect to the virus of conflict on different levels, whilst everybody’s trying to manage sort of emergency measures and just keeping their health site afloat. So, that’s kind of what’s been keeping me occupied.
INT: Okay, thank you very much. Yes, a very important dimension that is probably getting overlooked in some quarters during the crisis, so, we’ll be excited to return to that subject. Thank you all for those very interesting observations. So, now let us get more into the details of how governments have restricted freedoms, how we expect it to have longer term impacts, both on these individual societies, but also on the international order. So, Kristin, if I could start with you. Could you please begin by telling us a little bit about your research on the restrictive activities undertaken by governments prior to Covid, as you’ve looked at, but then also how these trends have continued under Covid?
KB: Thank you, Colin. Let me talk about the Covid-19 restrictions first, and then talk about the longer trends. So, a few examples of what we’ve seen. So, in Hungary, on March 30th, the parliament granted Prime Minister Orbán the right to rule by decree as long as he wants. The Chinese authorities silenced doctors who were raising the alarm in the early days of the virus. Iran has been arresting people for online rumourmongering about the spread of the pandemic. These are just a few examples. There are now some big data collection efforts underway to try to systematically track restrictive government responses to the pandemic. So, the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law reports that 112 countries have imposed measures that affect freedom of assembly. 86 have imposed emergency declarations. 33 have imposed measures that limit freedom of expression and 29 have imposed measures that affect privacy. Now, not all of these measures are reasons to worry. The ones to worry about are those that violate democratic standards for emergency procedures. The Varieties of Democracies Project, which is a big data collection effort on indicators of democracy has launched a new index that assesses the risk of democratic backsliding due to Covid-19 responses and they have to date collected data on 142 countries. And the bad news in the data that they’ve collected is that 48 countries have imposed measures that they deem to make them claim that these countries are at high risk of democratic backsliding, and 34 others are at medium risk of democratic backsliding. And the worry in these countries is that limits on freedom of assembly and expression are convenient excuses for governments to grab power for political ends, to impose measures that are disproportionate to the steps that are needed and that these measures will outlive the pandemic. Now, research
KB: that I’ve done with Neil Mitchell here at UCL and Hannah Smidt at the University of Zurich speaks to these concerns. And in this research, we see that civil society has long been under attack by governments who want to hide their bad behaviour. We’ve collected a global database of government-imposed restrictions on human rights organisations from 1994 until 2016 and our research shows that there are four development that are worrisome. First, over time, we see an increase in restrictions that are imposed on human rights NGOs worldwide. Now, this isn’t news to activists such as Amnesty, or news to the EU or the UN. These are organisations who have long warned about shrinking civic space, but it is systematic empirical backup of these concerns, that shows, using systematic data that there is this trend. Second thing to worry about is that these restrictions are often subtle. They range from the sort of visible steps taken by government, such as banning NGOs, killing activists, to perhaps less visible ones. Bureaucratic registration hurdles for NGOs, limits on international funding, travel restrictions, censoring of publications, smear campaigns against activists. So, governments are quite inventive in the ways in which they try to silence potential critics. And the third thing to worry about is why governments impose these restrictions. And we find that they do so to silence the voices that can bring international attention to their bad behaviour. So, the governments that impose human rights NGOs, are the ones that have human rights abuses to hide. Our database focuses on human rights organisations, but we know that activists who bring attention to corruption and environmental exploitation are also at risk. Now, once in place, restrictions are sticky. They’re also effective, and this is the final worry. Restrictions may get more difficult for international community to monitor how governments live up to their international treaty obligations, and this is because international naming and shaming campaigns that hold governments to account require information rich and reliable report from local activists. Now, we know that civil society organisations are remarkably resilient. In fact, government-imposed restrictions may initially trigger civil society activists in response to restrictions, but as governments increase the number of different types of restrictions, they effectively block the efforts of civil society to raise the alarm about governments’ bad behaviour. Now, our research looks at the long term trend of civil society restrictions and it’s not about Covid-19 specifically, but the lesson here for the Covid-19 restrictions we’re seeing is that civil society might not emerge in tact from the pandemic lockdowns in some countries and that’s not good news for government accountability.
INT: Thank you very much, Kristin. That was a little bit scary but very illuminating. You mentioned how some countries according to one of the databases you mentioned, are at medium risk or at high risk of becoming more oppressive or backsliding completely away from democracy. How do we think about this? Is it that some governments are more resilient with the democratic norms and with civil society or is that they’re just slowly working their way from medium to high risk and the damage is slowly being done? Can we think of some nations where it’s going to be harder to completely democratic backslide?
KB: So, this would depend on what level of democracy is at the outset. Now, one thing here that I didn’t mention is that some countries that are so undemocratic, so authoritarian that there is no room to backslide even further because they’re already at the far end here. And then there are—that’s 25 countries. They’re already close to autocracy, so, they can’t really go any further back. They also do find here is that, they also find that there are 47 governments that have introduced emergency measures that are not likely to pose a threat to democratic standards. It’s because these are already resilient democracies, but also because of the measures imposed. So, it’s a combination of how democratic a country is to begin with, I think, but also what’s the nature of the measures that are being imposed. But all this is research that’s not done by me, but by the good people who run the Varieties of Democracies Project. And they have a series of indicators that they look at to assess the measures that are being imposed and looking at how severely do these measures infringe, or what do they do to democratic standards, an acceptable—what’s acceptable under emergencies.
INT: Thanks very much for that. Rod Adouharb, let’s move on to you, okay. So, you’ve studied some of these same themes, such as how governments crack down on civil society and their political opponents. Your research occupies kind of an interesting area where you’re also looking at economic impacts in some of these countries as well. Can you talk to us a little bit about how these crackdowns have gone on, similar to what Kristin was talking about, but also some of the economic effects that such repression might have in the medium and longer term as we gradually recover from Covid?
RA: I’m quite interested in how governments utilise particular types of human rights violations for their own advantage. So, some of the research that I’ve been doing over the past few years has been looking at when governments try to utilise forced disappearances in comparison to other types of human rights violations. There certainly seems to be evidence that the Chinese government has done this with a number of the initial whistle blowers who were discussing the pandemic. So, some of the doctors who were some of the early whistle blowers. There have been reporters who were trying to get early footage of what was going on and try to get information out. They have all mysteriously disappeared. There are some pretty strong suggestions that they’ve been sent to detention camps where they might well be tortured, but people haven’t seen them since. So, this is a really worrying trend. So, it’s not just that the Chinese engaged in a lockdown to prevent the spread of the disease, right, but that they were engaged in a variety of human right violations to limit the spread of information about the disease to other people. You know, there is a kind of a line of research in the human rights literature that links repression to lower levels of foreign direct investment to reductions in economic growth and things like that. I think it will be really interesting to see how this pans out, especially in China. What I have seen written so far is not necessarily that companies are particularly worried about the human rights crackdowns as yet. It’s difficult to tell. But it’s perhaps companies won’t invest in China more, but China has had a terrible human rights record for a long time and plenty of investments going in. Where the discussion is now, is actually about the security of the supply line. So, because a lot of these supply lines have been disrupted because we know buy so many things from China, that people are not talking about kind of reshoring things to perhaps a more secure supply line. Things or providing things within the UK, rather than relying on shipments coming from overseas. That process was happening anyway, as China and other places because more expensive, but I think this trying to maintain the security of these supply lines. I think we’re going to see this emerge now much more quickly.
INT: So, if there’s a reshoring going on, and if that is a trend that continues, does that mean that democracies in the West and elsewhere will be able to use greater leverage against China for its human rights abuses?
RA: I’m not convinced. It’s possible. So, I think the thing that the Chinese have been so good at doing is they’ve been so good at buying all our debt. So, this is a fairly regular discussion that comes up anytime the US Administration gets close to a heavy verbal response to what the Chinese are doing, then they start to talk about releasing American debt onto the bond market, which is precisely what the Americans don’t want them to do. And they also now have a variety of interests in infrastructure projects in the UK, across Europe. So, it’s much more difficult for us to say these things, and then not to face potential economic consequences for doing so.
INT: Okay. Thank you very much. Julie Norman, let’s move on to you. You’ve had some thoughts about what Covid is doing to protests throughout the globe, but as you mentioned at the beginning, also how protests might be resilient and how protest movements might be adapting to their new restricted reality. Speak to that a little bit, if you would, please?
JN: Thanks. So, as Kristin said, in some ways we would expect less protest and less activism at this time, because of the kinds of government repression and restrictions that are being put in place. That might be from the imposition of emergency laws, or just from restrictions
JN: on public gatherings because of public health concerns, that are just impeding people from gathering for things like protests, or even people just imposing self-withdrawal from public gatherings or protests as well. But what we’ve seen instead is that citizens and activists in both democratic and authoritarian regimes are instead showing more willingness, if anything, to mobilise right now, even despite these constraints. Some of this is quite obvious from news headlines, just this last weekend of course, in the United States, protests and demonstrations across the country that have also been seen now in London, and throughout Europe. But also protests in places as diverse as Hong Kong, Mumbai, Beirut and many other cities over the course of Covid-19. And research is backing this up as well. University of Manchester has a strong project called the Mobilise Project which surveys different countries’ willingness to protest and looks at citizens’ willingness to mobilise and have been seeing actual increases in that willingness in countries as diverse as the Ukraine and Argentina. I’ve also been following a database that’s based at Harvard University and run by Erica [s.l. Chuniliffe 21:13] that’s using crowdsourcing to document different types of non-violent actions that people are engaging with around the world, and that is growing every day, currently with about 150 different types of non-violent actions that people have been engaging with. Not just actions themselves, but just different types of tactics. So, we definitely are seeing some different type of activism and some protests in different places, manifesting in different places, differently of course. So, what does explain this? In my work, looking at social movements, I draw a lot from social movement theory, which tries to understand when and how movements emerge and when they’re successful. And there’s a couple of different pillars of this. The first is when we look at what are called structural opportunities and constraints. And as Kristin mentioned, there are a lot of structural constraints right now. There are a lot of emergency laws going into place. There’s a lot of regulations that shouldn’t be limiting activism. But often these constraints lead to opportunities as well, when they’re seen to backfire. Again, it gets to a tipping point where people feel that they are being repressed to a point that is beyond the acceptable curtailing of their rights under something like an emergency. There’s something like a surge of activism in response to that. So, that’s partly what we’re seeing in some areas. The second pillar that we look at in social movement theory is the framing of grievances themselves, and we’ve definitely seen, at least a perception of increased grievances in many different countries and often overlapping. These range, of course, from intense economic grievances, you know, unemployment in the United States around 20 percent. Mass inflation in countries like Lebanon, severe food shortages in Yemen and certain countries in Central Africa where I work, so, definitely intense economic grievances combined with political grievances. Again, this sense of a curtailing of civil liberties, and also mapped onto many socio-cultural grievances with the virus affecting poor communities and some communities of colour in disproportionate ways. So, many of these grievances are not new, but we see Covid exacerbating these existing grievances and giving them a new sense of urgency. And the third element that we look at in social movement theory, which I think is the most interesting, is tactics and tactical innovation. And normally when we think of activism and I work mostly in non-violent activism, so, in that space, particularly we focus on a protest, and this is usually what we think of. People coming out on the streets, people power. And even though that’s the most visible and usually the most symbolic, most movements don’t sustain with just protest. Usually movements need to go beyond that and have much longer behind the scenes organising alongside that more visible manifestation. And this is more what we look at as organising, rather than mobilising. It’s long term grass roots processes. We’re really aiming to support communities to support themselves without relying on the state or traditional authorities. And we’ve seen this happening a lot. We’ve seen people organising community mutual aid pods, where community member who need things can rely on others. We’ve seen coordinated mask sewing. We’ve seen crowd sourced emergency funds. We’ve seen pop up food banks. All these things that communities are starting to do to organise, again, horizontally in ways that they are relying less on the state and building up that sense of community solidarity. So, what I think is interesting, right now, is again, we are seeing quite visible protests in some areas. It’s not clear if this type of activism will sustain and how it will manifest in different countries, but it’s clear that activism has not been side-lined by the pandemic and rather civilians around the world are adapting strategically. And instead, I think quite crucially, moving towards more building community-based coalitions in ways that have the potential to enhance movements in the long run, rather than limit them.
INT: That’s great, thank you very much, and kind of a hopeful message as well. Although I guess, one message that comes out of that is that given that there is this greater, as you say, horizontal coordination that isn’t reliant on the state, should we worry though, that the sort of restrictions that Kristin is studying and has documented, do you think that these sorts of restrictions would in time hinder the sort of horizontal coordination that we’re seeing right now and might it make it less effective in the longer run?
JN: Absolutely, and of course, these things can’t fully be separated from each other. And again, I think importantly, movements are going to look different in different states, and those that have the more severe repression. And especially as I think Kristin rightly points out, those that really focus on cracking down on NGOs and civil society, those kind of regimes are the ones that are most dangerous to movements, because it’s the state ruling it’s own vertical pressure, but it’s also making it much harder for these kinds of horizontal networks to form or for people to support each other at that kind of space. So, I think the point that Kristin’s making on this is really crucial for understanding why sometimes movements get stunted, even when they have this initial start that seems quite promising.
INT: Right. So, civil society in these contexts will have to continue to be resilient and find new ways of adapting around these restrictions. Thanks very much for that, Julie. Finally, Melanie. You’ve done research on cyber technology, its differences and developments across nations. I think you said at the beginning, that’s what’s been keeping you up at night during the crisis. So, what can you tell us about digital technology and as well, about repression and how these interact in the context of Covid or just a broader role that digital technology is playing as well right now?
MG: Well, obviously as we all sit on it, digital technology is huge, or we wouldn’t be here. But you’re right in the sense that what has sort of been coming out of this and it interlinks, in some way with everything that, all the aspects we’re thinking about, the aspects that Rod and Julie and Kristin have brought about, but at the starting point of this, is this concept of cyber poverty, with developing nations. In fact, the rush to develop to digitalise, gets this sense of what we call hollow digitalisation, where you get these rapid digitalisation processes, sometimes without the checks and balances or the laws or the infrastructure or the norms in place to protect that digitalisation and potentially to exploit that digitalisation. We’ve seen this particularly in places, in sub-Saharan Africa or Africa as a whole, the case in point and really thinking about where the areas are that leave people vulnerable. In the technology side, we’re saying with every capability, there’s a vulnerability and where do we find the vulnerability in these spaces. And kind of the—and it’s such a huge field, so, ranging from the international security side to the state based hostile actor side, to what’s happening internally. But to join to where Rod, and Kristin and Julie have really been talking about, this concept to the extent that it’s contributing to the shrinking of civic spaces. So, at the outset of the online world, in its ethos was this bold new frontier given by freedoms and freedom of expression and held huge promise for civil society space. And what we’re seeing gradually with this sort of rise that we’re calling digital authoritarianism, is this potential to shrink online spaces massively. Also, that links in with the surveillance culture that has been growing and the data mining and all the
potential that goes on across from the private to the public sector, so, just to put that into context that Facebook, between January and June 2018, received over 103,815 requests from government for information about Facebook users, and that goes from everything from their IP addresses to their personal information, under guises of national security requests. Now, as we’re put into this position on one level, where all, then, civil society activity,
MG: whether it’s to organise protests or whether it’s any form of conversation is in that space, the potential and the questions of data theft and data protections have long been in place, but in the developing countries that do not yet have these infrastructures in place, the problem is potentially even more critical, and this is often cross-sect with the economic inequality problems, which in some cases, and it links to the cybercrime problem, cybercrime as the only means of earning and income. So, in Kenya, they have something called the Yahoo boys that work on cybercrime, through Yahoo, and this is seen as a valid form of earning an income in absence of any other ways of unemployment. So, it’s all becoming very much a linked circle. By the same token, this intersect between what we’re moving to, contact and trace, we’re hearing about in the UK, but legitimate mechanisms to try and collect data under the guise of health protections, playing into this wider, if you want, rollout of digital surveillance toolkit. So, China, the Chinese digital surveillance toolkit which is based on the Great Far Wall of China, of sort of closing internet linked with surveillance technology, it’s been rolled out to 18 countries. The Russian model, which is the other model of creating this closed internet, is one that’s being spread out to more the Kyrgyzstan and those sort of post-Soviet states that are also using these models, very much control where the information is and the closure of online civic spaces, which brings us to thinking about the information people are receiving, and the disinformation and misinformation questions. Which go back to what Rod has been saying about the free press and journalists disappearing, about questioning this, and the messages and narrative that are our there and what we’re beginning to see from a legal perspective is this misuse of laws against fake news. So, there’s laws that have come into place against banning the spreading of fake news on coronavirus, but it’s subjective. So, for instance, Hungary has enacted a law saying there’s going to be five years in prison for anyone who spreads fake news about coronavirus. But of course, it’s the veritable Orban who is making the decision on what is the fake news or not. The fake news about coronavirus, and that’s sort of in the domestic sort of level and on the next level, if you have your state disinformation campaigns or active measures, depending on how you use it, which is part of the natural process of international relations that is coming in, which is leading to the breakdown of trust within governments, or between the pact between people. And government and impacting how countries can deal with it, and whether in developed countries even, let alone in developing countries, we have the cyber tools in place to be able to even tell the difference between this real and disinformation. And do we have the education processes in place to be able, for society to make these healthy decisions? If not, potentially we have risk to people’s health as well. So, it’s a rather complex, all-encompassing puzzle when we start to unpack all these, what I call, these unwanted cyber effects of coronavirus.
INT: Thank you, Melanie. That’s slightly terrifying but very informative. The more authoritarian these nations become, these are the sort of restrictions that Kristin and Julie were talking about as well, that all of you have been talking about, and I suppose that when we’re talking about fake news, then the more authoritarian the nation, the more we have to worry about it coming from anyone, possibly the government but also different sorts of organisation that are just able to put it out there. But also, maybe the government using it to its advantage, yes?
MG: Yeah, exactly and it can be used on both spheres, and it’s a fine line when we talk about legitimate protest movements to radicalisation processes, when you have limited exposure to information. And this is compounded when we’re all, with lockdowns, only getting our information in a certain way. In fact, something I always say to students but how often do you sign up to listen to a news source of something you don’t agree with? And the safest way to keep yourself safe online from these messages, is are you listening to messages you don’t always agree with as a counterbalance? But as we go into that filter bubble, whether it’s organisation, state-based control or legitimate civil society organisations or extreme organisations, whether it’s with an aim of radicalising people, it’s all subject to the same process, but trying to filter out, how we understand that is beginning to get an increased need for educational awareness of what is the information that we’re looking at.
INT: Yes, thank you. So, yeah, motivated reasoning is powerful when we’re looking for our news. Okay, I’d like to ask a question to each of you now. We have questions that have come from the students, some excellent questions. So, I’ll go around in the same order with each of you, but one question we had from the students was can a democratic regime be as effective in infectious disease infection as their more autocratic counterparts, without the repression of civil liberties? So, an assumption there that the autocratic country has an advantage in fighting a pandemic and can a democracy do as well? Kristin, your thoughts on this question?
KB: Well, thank you. That’s a good question and in some ways a question, we can’t know the answer to just yet, in terms of how this pandemic is unfolding. There is some recent research that has just come out and I think Melanie might speak about that later, but if we look at these measures that have been imposed during the pandemic and the Varieties of Democracies Project, they’ve been tracing or tracking these measures. So, 47 governments have introduced emergency measures that are not likely to pose a threat to democratic standards in the long run. And then you have the 48 plus 34 that they’re more worried about. So, what I guess we can do in the longer term is to look at both the health consequences, of course, of the pandemic and look at the measures and see what is the correlation between the outcomes when it comes to health consequences but also the economic consequences of pandemic. But in some ways, I think it’s too early for us to really say what is most effective and effective for what, the health part of it, which I guess is what the question might be about. But what about the longer-term economic consequences. And then of course, what the consequences for the health of civil society of democracy itself in the long term.
INT: Okay, thanks very much. Rod, your thoughts on that question.
RA: I guess I have two thoughts on this. One is if we think about where pandemics have emerged, most often over the past several centuries, they have emerged most often from China, from what I have read and if we look at the most recent case with Covid, the response of the Chinese government was actually to not talk about this, to not inform both the Chinese public and the world more generally about what was going on. So, what is coming out really strongly now is that the doctors in Wuhan and elsewhere were saying, look, we have this really deadly disease that we’re not sure what it is, but we need to be able to try to combat that as quickly as possible, and rather than the government sort of welcoming that, say right, we have a public health emergency, they were actually trying to shut discussion of this down. So, from that perspective, I think these are authoritarian regimes where you have very little freedom of speech, where they’re not open, where there isn’t this accountability for the press and others to pepper political leaders with questions and ask them what are you doing, why are you not doing you’re saying you’re doing and link that to the research from epidemiologists and others about what works best. It’s really clear to me that the situation would have been much better if we had seen a faster, more open response from the Chinese at the very beginning. From when you look at the discussion about how other states responded, it was really about the speed of response. So, even within countries, so, even within the US, some cities and states responded much quicker than others. That to me is much more about competence, than whether or not it’s an authoritarian or a democratic regime in terms of
RA: how you deal with the public health pandemic.
INT: Okay, thank you very much, Rod. Julie, your thoughts on this question?
JN: Yeah, I just echo—as Kristin said, I do think it’s a little too early to answer that in a clear-cut way, at least from the public health perspective. But as Rod just alluded to, there is something to be said for the fact that societies that seem to have the most information going to citizens and the most transparency around that, seemed to be ones that are faring just as well, if not better, than those who had a more autocratic, hard, heavy-handed response, at least for this initial stage. And likewise, again, in terms of measuring a successful response to this, again, public health is a very big concept in itself, if we’re looking at that just in terms of numbers, of cases of corona, or deaths by corona, that’s obviously one measurement, but there are so many other things that are going into that again, with people’s sense of wellbeing, economically, socially, politically, that I think you would be—any slight gains that you could arguably, if you could arguably say there were gains from an autocratic response to this, the losses in those other areas, I don’t think would outweigh it.
INT: Okay, thank you. And Melanie, finally?
MG: There—interestingly enough, there’s been a study that’s just come out from a Wharton business professor, and it looks at 146 cases of epidemic outbreaks since 1995 across countries to try and look at these questions of democracy and authoritarianism. In a nutshell, his findings come out that the biggest indicators, more than democracy or authoritarianism, is what he termed state capacity. So, going back to what you’re sort of thinking of, is actually state capacity and economic inequality and in a sense that in highly unequal states, people will be more inclined or need to go to work or to be more inclined to break lockdown or social distancing measures, so, therefore you’re going to get more of a spread. And that strong state capacity, or efficient state capacity, so, to go back to what both Julie and Rob were just alluding to, within public health, to be able to roll out these measures fairly quickly and effectively are the most interesting indicators. So, he tends to look at places like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, that tended to have quite a strong response that reflected both of these elements as case in points. But it’s by a guy called [s.l. Mario Gillem 42:53] in the Wharton Business school and you have a look at the study there. It’s an interesting one on the politics of pandemics and democracy.
INT: Thank you, Melanie. And Kristin, you wanted to add one final thought to this question?
KB: Yeah, I just wanted to really echo here on what Rod and Julie were pointing to, was the importance of information to hold governments to account to handling this pandemic. So, just like the observance of human rights needs local activists to sound the alarm when human rights abuses occur, timely and reliable information about the spread, and about the containment of Covid-19 is more likely when there is an active civil society, that is independent of governments and can hold these governments to account. And I think that speaks very strongly in favour of democracies’ ability to come out of this crisis.
INT: Okay. Thank you very much. I’m mindful of time and that we don’t have a great deal more, so, I wanted to ask you each one final question, looking further into the future. We’ve talked about the increasing number of restrictions and increasing level of repression in some places, but at the same time resilient civil society which is a hopeful message. What are these effects, to the best we can tell, what effects do we think they’ll have on the international order in the longer run? That is the design, the standard setting, the implementation of international human rights treaties or other types of international agreements? Will they carry on business as usual, where we rely on organisations to shine a light on what’s going on, or will some governments become so much more repressive that they pull out altogether and it undermines international order altogether? Kristin, can we start with you again?
KB: Wow, that’s a million-dollar question, I feel like I don’t have a great answer to it. So, I guess we can envision really two scenarios here. One is where we do see a complete—not a complete falling apart of international cooperation, but more retreat to national responses and doing it alone and handling this in isolation, which arguably we’ve been seeing in this crisis. And then a more positive outlook, which outlook which would suggest, and this is based on—I was reading Diamond’s essay, the geographer, it’s Jared Diamond’s essay in the FTS Today, where he outlined with a question mark that maybe there is a much more positive outlook that we’re all coming together in this crisis and that reinforces the need for international cooperation and makes us realise the need for international cooperation. Again, the sort of cop-out, research answer is we just don’t know yet what is going to come out of this in essence.
INT: Okay, thank you. Yes, you’re right, it’s a difficult one but it’s also the million-dollar question in some ways. So, Rod, your thoughts on the broader international order further down the road.
RA: I guess two interesting things for me with this. So, for example, a few weeks ago there was the meeting of the G20 in Saudi and I think one of the really interesting things is that they have had maybe over the past six months, is they’ve had kind of a number of different statements around kind of cooperation to do with Covid and all these other things, and the language that they use sounds great, everyone should have access to all the necessary healthcare they need, that we should be sharing all the resources that states need to kind of combat this pandemic and all these other things, and then the problem is that there is then this kind of enormous difference between this rhetoric and the reality, so, it then turns our that actually the US and the UK and a number of other countries are busily gobbling up all the resources to make any vaccines if and when they come out. That they are not exporting excess PPE to states that actually need it. So, if you need ventilators, you cannot get them now because there are some states that have basically cornered the market. And so, I think there is this big difference between the rhetoric of what they’re saying and the actual cooperation. I think the other thing that you will see is this group of states that now violates human rights, I think they will add pandemic health concerns as another reason to restrict rights. So, if this kind of varies over time. There’s some expectations that you might have a second and third wave or even that this comes back every year. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see these nastier human rights violating states using this as an opportunity to then crack down, again, on our opposition members in three to six months’ time. I think, and then of course, if we’re then trying to encourage these states to behave better, I think this is going to be in some ways where we are today. That we have a group of states who tend to try to behave relatively well, and then they try to influence others. But now the ones they are trying to influence will have even more excuses for why they’re not doing what it is that they should be doing.
INT: Thanks very much, Rod. And Julie?
JN: Yeah, as Rod said, I definitely think you will see states who usually look for loopholes to exploit, will do that with this crisis as well, but in terms of a general order, I would agree more with Kristin’s latter point, that during the initial phase of this crisis, when it really was damage control, we did see a quite literal retreat behind national borders and kind of a very nationalist kind of response to that. But I think moving forward in the more longue durée response to the crisis, with the digging out and again, in addressing more of the economic, civil, political challenges that have come along with it, there’s going to be increasing need for cooperation that international organisation and treaties provide to some extent. And states, regardless of where they are in the world order so, to speak, are just going to need that independence to some degree to control their next moves
JN: out of this. But I would say, again, taking this also to the level of citizens and civilians, this is also, I think, knocked on to what we’ve seen pre-Covid, was a growing sense of populism, a growing sense of more popular in people’s distrust with some of these international organisations, treaties, regimes, what have you. So, even though I think most states and governments will stay within them, I think there will be increasing pushback from this growing, more populous base that is one element within these growing social movements and activists populations as well. So, that might be something to consider.
INT: Okay, thank you, Julie. And finally, Melanie, to you.
MG: I’m slightly more optimistic [laughs], and I don’t know whether that’s because a lot of my thinking, as I say, and reading and work I’ve been at the moment, has been more on the science tech side where there’s talk of extraordinary cooperation, looking at the cyber side of things, which is something that has required and has actually highlighted the need for the cooperation, highlighted the need for gaps. So, the recent speech from the UN from the GG, looking at governing what are critical attacks, what constitutes some of the legal side of how, you said, the sort of the reinforcement of creating new norms. I think, and on the other side of it from the scientific community, looking at open data sharing in order to find a solution. So, there are different communities that are working towards [inaudible 51:39]. So, whilst there is the natural withdrawal for dealing with this on a state by [inaudible 51:44] I think on the overarching superstructure, I think there’s a lot more cooperation than we assume. In some ways, it’s like this giant meteor, if you want, that’s hit the earth and I think there is a huge—and that has forced people, whether it’s from the civil society organisations or the way that journalism, the challenge of free press to really unleash extraordinary creativity. I think we’re in this period of all the little green shoots growing up around where the meteor has hit, and I think we’re going to see extraordinarily new, creative ways of seeing things and thinking about, and building this into things. So, even if, going back to my sort of other counterpart, which is looking at peace agreement, is will we begin to think about, when we’re building post-conflict agreements or paradigms or peacekeeping paradigms or anything into that, do we have to account for these factors in them, how are we managing them and do we get better sort of control through thinking pre-emptive processes rather than reactive processes? I actually think we’re on the brink of actually some major growth and creativity, forward thinking, but that’s just me.
INT: Alright, thank you very much, Melanie. That was a positive message and all of you have given us a great deal to think about in terms of the repression, the restrictions on civil society, but also a lot to think about in terms that civil society might respond to this and the way, as you say, Melanie, the new paradigms and international agreements might flourish somewhere down the road. It is early at this point, but these are things that we can keep our eyes on as we emerge from Covid. I want to thank you all so much for a very interesting discussion; Professor Kristin Bakke, Dr Rod Adouharb, Dr Julie Norman and Dr Melanie Garson. This has been the third instalment of the Politics of Covid Symposia. If you’d like to listen to the first episodes, search for PS Online on the UCL Political Science website, and there you can find the episodes from this podcast, as well as episodes from our other podcast, Meet your Researcher. The final Politics of Covid-19 podcast, Democracy under Covid-19, which follows well from some of this discussion will be available on Thursday June 18th and if you’d like to submit a question for this podcast, please do so on the PS Online webpage by June 11th. That is all from us today. Thank you again to our four panellists. Goodbye from all of us, take care and please stay safe.
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