Covid-19 and democracy*

György Széll,
Professor Emeritus,
Institute of Social Sciences,
University of Osnabrück,

After each crisis we ask ourselves: Can we learn out of history? We will ask this question again after the major effects of the on-going Covid-19 pandemic will be over. So let us have first a look back into history of pandemics (Snowden, 2019). Every human being has about 2 kilo of bacteria in his body. We live in a kind of symbiosis with, and could not even survive without them. Actually diseases and viruses accompany humanity since its very beginning. Out of several million viruses only about 5,000 are known in detail today. They exist much longer than humanity, since life on earth began, i.e. several hundred million of years ago. Viruses will therefore never be eradicated. We have to adapt ourselves – with or without vaccination. The bubonic plague in the 14/15th centuries diminished the European population by one third. Nevertheless there are two positive developments, which were the result of this catastrophe:

  1. New religious movements emerged, which eventually led to Protestantism, i.e. another schism within Christianity, which strengthened the individual, and
  2. the creation of modern medicine, based on Arabic knowledge, which contributed to Enlightenment and the prolongation of life expectancy.

The most dreadful pandemic in modern times, i.e. the so-called Spanish flu in 1918/19, had some 50 million dead out of a world population of less than 2 billion. This mortality rate put into relationship with today’s world population would mean some 200 million casualties. Eventually Fascism and Stalinism emerged hereafter, leading to World War II with some 60 million casualties. But positively also international organisations were created like the League of Nations Health Organisation (LNHO) in 1919, the predecessor of the UN World Health Organisation. „But with that realization came hubris. In 1948, US Secretary of State George Marshall confidently declared that humanity was about to eradicate infectious diseases from the Earth.“ (Campanella, 2020) There was a Delphi health forecast – i.e. experts were asked in their relevant field – in Japan in the 1990s with the result that in 2020 all diseases will be eradicated. (Cuhls, 1998) A utopia, which unfortunately will never come true. ‘Normal’ flu viruses kill every year between 250,000 and 695,000 people globally – without making headlines (Paget et al., 2019). Corona viruses accompany humanity since some 600 years, and are responsible for about 15-20 % mortality of lung infections annually. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2002/3 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus) in 2012 were predecessors to Covid-19, also called SARS 2. So far no vaccination exists for both infections, therefore it is very doubtful if ever one for Covid-19 will be found (Ma & McCarthy, 2020). And even if appropriate medications and vaccinations will be available there is the risk that vested interests will appropriate them via patents, and by that increase social inequality (Michaels, 2008). Already the US CIA forecasted a virus catastrophe in 2008

Definitely the Covid-19 is much more dangerous than the other corona viruses, although it is far from the casualties caused by pandemics as in the past. There are different strategies to cope with it, and therefore different results. In India and South Africa Covid-19 restrictions cause more collateral damage than the pandemic itself. If millions of people will die out of hunger, non-treatment of other diseases the catastrophe will question the functioning of government. The German computer activist, Sascha Lobo, characterizes this approach as panic reason (2020). “… We must recognize that, in many ways, defending public health and defending democracy are two fronts in the same battle.“ (Gaspard, 2020) Certainly the containment is a severe incursion into freedom rights. However, as already 600 years ago with the plague it is the only way to restrict the explosion of infections. But probably the most serious pandemic today is casino capitalism, i.e. an unrestricted market economy (Soros, 1998). It is killing millions of people through famine, lack of drinking water, hygiene, medical care etc. every year. The global financial crisis of 1929 (Black Friday) brought forward many authoritarian and fascist regimes. (Corner & Lim, 2016) After the financial crisis of 2008/9 banks were saved with hundreds of billions of US-Dollars of public money. As collateral damage populism and neo-fascism spread worldwide. Today ‘illiberal’ or ‘directed’ democracies take the occasion of a viral turn to increase their rule (Gaspard, 2020). But, cope democratic regimes better with the Covid-19 crisis than authoritarian regimes? It is very doubtful, if there will be more democracy in the world after the Covid-10 pandemic. Out of 167 ranked countries only 22 are full democracies right now (The Economist, 2020). The United States as well as Japan are ‘flawed democracies’.

The political scientist Dani Rodrik asked: “Will Covid-19 Remake the World?” (2020) Definitely Covid-19 has led to a kind of civilisation crisis. On the one hand, after the first openings of malls shopping goes on as before. And we are Amusing ourselves to death, as the US-American sociologist Neil Postman wrote already more than thirty years ago (1985).

The three principles Liberty, equality, fraternity of the French Revolution from 1789 have to be balanced: Complete liberty means anarchy, complete equality means restrictions of liberties, fraternity – today called solidarity – is strengthening liberties and equality. Fortunately in any crisis there is not only egotism, which is spreading, but solidarity as well. But will solidarity sustain after the crisis?

To summarize: That societies and human beings changed fundamentally after severe crises was the exception, and limited in time. In most cases a conservative, reactionary turn happened. Citizens were looking more than ever for security. However, one thing, which has been learned so far from pandemics over the last several hundred years is the improvement of hygiene and medicine. But one issue will be at the forefront now: The commodification and with it exploitation in the health sector, or let us better say industry. In the past hospitals were run by religious, humanitarian and municipal institutions. Today it is quite often that capitalist companies control the sector looking for profits. Health has become a commodity, it is not a public good anymore. The consequences are: exploitation, bad working conditions, and low salaries. Therefore many foreigners work in the health sector in the rich West. So if the health care system and the care for elderly will be improved in the long run, is very difficult to foresee. Crises nevertheless have triggered conscientisation (Freire, 1970). It led many people to religious, irrational action, but on the other hand sometimes also to more and better science. Not too bad after all.

Due to the Covid-19 restrictions the environment has been less polluted over the last couple of weeks, e.g. by less traffic, home office, video conferences/meetings etc. Nevertheless homo sapiens is a zoon politikon, a social being: We need social contacts not only via so-called social media. Insofar we have to find a new balance between pandemic control and environmental protection (Hennicke, 2020). How to overcome the collateral damages? How to be better prepared? Which lessons can be learned? Who are the actors for social change for better? Trade unions, Fridays for Future, the researchers? What we learn from history is ambivalent. Today we are confronted with populist, fundamentalist, anarchist, neo-fascist political movements and politicians as well as fundamentalist religious movements (Széll, 2020). On the other side are Podemos, Syriza, Fridays for Future and other citizen movements for more democracy. The French philosopher Edgar Morin names therefore our species not homo sapiens sapiens, but homo sapiens demens (1992). After all Mark Honigsbaum called our times The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris (2019). And already in 2011 Nathan Wolfe wrote The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age. But the psychologist Steven Pinker discovered that humanity in its history over the last 10,000 years became less violent and calls this The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). He demands Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Finally, as literature tells often more about the human species than many social science studies, my recommendation to read during these times of confinement these two books by the Nobel Prize winners of literature: Albert Camus ‘The Plague’ and José Saramago ‘Blindness’. Stay healthy and enlightened!

* This is shortened version of an article published within Dasarath Chetty (ed.), Reflections during the Pandemic, Madrid, International Sociological Association, where you also find all the references, pp. 9-13 <>.


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