What about democracy?
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - July 11, 2020 - 12:00am

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact COVID-19 is having on the success of democracy.

On Tuesday 14th the Kofi Annan Foundation, in collaboration with the Asian Network for Free Elections and the Asian Democracy Network, is hosting a virtual discussion on “the decline of democratic health in Southeast Asia as a result of the pandemic, as well as ways to strengthen and reinvigorate it in the long run.” I am delighted and honored to have been asked to moderate the discussion with the former president of Timor-Leste José Ramos Horta, Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, former United Nations under secretary-general and former executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and Thant Myint-U, author and former special adviser to the president for the peace process in Myanmar.

They’re holding the discussion because research by the V-Dem Institute of Gothenburg University has found that some governments in Southeast Asia have experienced different levels and forms of democratic backsliding under the cover of pandemic-related emergency measures. The idea is for the panelists “to present the regional situation and explore ways of restoring, and even invigorating, democracy in Southeast Asia as it emerges from the pandemic.”

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some people, but there is actually a lot of preparation that goes into these events to get the language and discussion right, especially when the participants are as distinguished as these. Personally, my experience as a journalist for the past 30 years simply doesn’t allow me to make claims without substantial and double-checked evidence.

I find myself yearning for nuance and precision about the terms of the discussion. We are in the extraordinary situation where activities that were previously not only legal, but also essential to our livelihoods and relationships – an expression of the essentially human desire for social activity, are now not only banned but liable for arrest. Hence the extraordinary story of Howie Severino (himself a coronavirus survivor) getting in trouble for having a drink without his mask on.  Now, was this state repression, abuse by authorities, or an overenthusiastic enforcer?

For background I was sent an article that appeared in Open Democracy about “State repression in the Philippines during COVID-19 and beyond.” Part of the article reads: “The Philippines’ social news network Rappler reported, “As of June 8, the police have arrested a total of 193,779 people for quarantine violations since March 17. Of this number, it had charged 58,848 and detained 15,307. As of writing, 2,637 remain in congested jails.”

Nope.

The article actually say the 193,779 people were apprehended, not arrested. Philippine National Police numbers cited in another Rappler report (March 17 to May 31) indicate 58 percent were simply warned, 12 percent fined. 30 percent were arrested, of whom 26 percent were arrested without warrants (usually this happens because they are supposedly “caught in the act” otherwise there’s a complaint and investigation procedure. The ones still in jail are among those and constitute 1.3 percent of the total apprehended and there’s no explanation why they remain there – it might be possible they were only in for a short period but on the cutoff date. Meanwhile, Rappler has reported a drop in other crimes: From 3,894 theft cases from Jan. 1 to March 16, there were 1,219 from March 17 to May 31. From 1,869 cases of robbery, the figure dropped to 585. Both are equivalent to a 69 percent decrease. Physical injury cases also dropped to 1,139 from March 17 to May 31, from 1,903. There were still 799 murder cases during quarantine, compared to 1,329 cases in the preceding months. There were still 214 cases of homicide, compared to the previous 325. And there were still 721 cases of rape, compared to the previous 1,519.

In addition, the Open Democracy article mentions the Philippines’ health workers who have been “in the frontline of the battle to provide urgent care and save lives despite inadequate staffing and personal protective equipment (PPE).” But while it may well be the case that health workers in the Philippines need better PPE, more Filipino healthworkers have died from COVID-19 in the UK than have died in the Philippines itself. There are 18,500 Filipinos out of 1.1 million NHS workers in the UK or less than two percent, but 20 percent of the dead are Filipino (57 of at least 247). Only 34 Filipino healthcare workers have died in the Philippines itself.

I think of Sweden, lovely Sweden with its well established social democracy that decided to veer to the other end of the spectrum, favoring individual and economic freedoms over restricting gatherings of people. It has been a unique standout in its policy response to the covid pandemic by conducting an unorthodox, open-air experiment. The government has allowed life to carry on mostly unresricted. As a result, not only have thousands more people died than in neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns, but Sweden’s economy has fared little better. “They literally gained nothing,” said Jacob F. Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “It’s a self-inflicted wound, and they have no economic gains.”

In the discussion I hope to steer the conversation toward the way governments across the region are navigating between keeping economies functioning at one end of the spectrum and limiting the spread of the infection (and not overburdening public health systems) at the other. It seems evident that pre-covid democratic benchmarks are being compromised as a result, not just in south east Asia but everywhere.

Please join us for the discussion at 3:30 pm on Tuesday.

COVID-19
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