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Diversity and debate have a positive impact on fighting the pandemic

Date:08 June 2020

By dr. Nicolle Zeegers, lecturer of Political Science, University of Groningen, Faculty of Law, Dept. of Transboundary Legal Studies

How governments approach the Covid-19 crisis is not only interesting from the political science viewpoint; it also has wide-reaching implications for global health. Political regimes find themselves on a continuum between the democratic and the authoritarian ends. What is the significance of the variety of leadership such regimes bring during the Covid-19 crisis? I asked the first-year international Honours students from the Faculty of Law to write an essay on this topic, accompanied by a videoclip as a modern touch.

In their assignment, the students considered different aspects of government interventions: the centralization of authorities resulting in the setting aside of parliament, the decentralization of responsibilities, the disagreements and conflicts between national and regional or local authorities, etc. Especially relevant to this blog is the role of medical experts and how their knowledge and efforts influence governmental decision making.

 In the Netherlands, medical experts were given a big say. In fact, the Outbreak Management Team, which for a short while seemed to rule the country, consisted primarily of medical experts. At the end of April, academic opinion grew increasingly critical; it seemed about time to address and challenge the democratic and legal shortcomings. Necessity might know no law, but this can only last for a restricted period of time. Not only democracy but also science rely greatly on diversity, opposition and debate; knowledge and scientific insights grow out of a constant process of formulation of hypotheses and falsification.

What about the extent of pluralism and opposition in other ‘democratic regimes’? Jasmine wrote about president Bolsonaro. He accused the media of spreading fear by depicting the pitiful situation in Italian hospitals. Due to the more tropical climate and different age demographic, it would be incorrect to compare Brazil to Italy. According to Bolsonaro, “The virus has arrived, and we are facing it and will soon pass. Our life has to continue. The jobs must be kept. The livelihoods of families must be safeguarded. We must return to normality.” Bolsonaro even went as far as to oppose the policies of qualified authorities at the federal and municipal level by calling for the cessation of transport restrictions, the closing of businesses and mass confinement. However, the Supreme Court confirmed the latter policies as appropriate. Furthermore, statistics provide evidence of how Bolsonaro’s policy is undermining public health: the number of infections has risen exponentially since the middle of March.

Egypt introduced heavy punishments for spreading rumours about the virus. Indeed, ‘fake news’ is dangerous when health and even lives are at stake; however, in regimes that predominantly lean towards the authoritarian side of the continuum, this kind of legislation can be used as an instrument to directly control any criticism. Ali describes how Sisi poses as a protector of the working class (the majority in Egypt) and propagates an image of himself as a benefactor. A video shows Sisi inspecting a construction site and noting that the builders were not wearing facemasks. He publicly scolded the construction officials and performed a monologue about how the construction workers would lose their only source of income in case of sickness.

 In Hungary, those publicizing untrue or distorted facts about Covid-19 also face prison sentences. A few weeks ago, Politico reported that 87 investigations had been opened by the Hungarian police into what it called ‘scaremongering’. This included Facebook posts that criticized the decision of the government to ease the lockdown. It does not have to get as far as prosecution for government agencies to deter citizens from publishing criticism about the authority on the internet: the police uploaded videos of people being forcefully escorted out of their home and into a police car, to do the trick. Meanwhile, government officials point at such occasions of quick release after arrest as evidence of the strength of the rule of law.

In the British Medical Journal, Professor of Global Health Devi Sridhar (co-author Maimuna S Majumder) stresses the importance of ensuring that “representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table when major decisions are taken” Consulting multiple sources of knowledge instead of only relying on the epidemiological models and listening to the experience of other countries has proved to positively impact successful policy. The leaders of Germany (Angela Merkel), Finland (Sanna Marin), New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern) and Taiwan (Tsai Ing-wen), all female leaders, did well in this respect. On 11 May, Jacinda Ardern was able to end the lockdown because the spreading of the virus in her country had stopped.

 Openness to multiple sources of knowledge, discussion, and listening to others wonderfully match the academic attitude we want Honours students to acquire. What could be more convincing than having them find evidence of how such attitude appeared to help contain – locally maybe even erase – the spreading of Covid-19 infections.