The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the tension between individual liberty and the collective good that is inherent to any democracy. It also brought to light the government’s role in keeping its citizens safe and communicating public health information.
These episodes, recorded during the pandemic’s early days in spring 2020, explore those tensions and how the pandemic might have lasting impacts on democracies around the world.
COVID & Authoritarianism
COVID-19 has created an excuse for authoritarians around the world to consolidate power. Repressive regimes such as China have jailed political prisoners, and citizen journalists reporting on the pandemic have disappeared. Russia clamped down on free reporting to protect powerful warlords. Free speech is under attack in the U.S., as was the case when Captain Brett Crozier was fired for expressing concern about COVID-19 onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Navy nuclear powered aircraft carrier.
Long term danger of surveillance
Under the guise of public safety, governments are increasingly collecting our data, such as through contact tracing. It might make sense to share our personal information at this time. However, once these habits become established, they are hard to break. We could soon be subject to temperature or blood checks at border crossings, airports, or even public buildings. If governments obtain and track our medical histories, they will know much more about us than whether or not we have COVID-19.
Seeing Through Trump’s Response
The U.S. federal government’s response to COVID-19 utilizes the authoritarian playbook. Scientists like Dr. Fauci are muzzled while Trump spews angry rhetoric, total fabrications, and rewritten narratives to make himself look better. Trump can usually avoid repercussions for his lying, but a mounting virus death-toll is one fact-check he cannot shrug off. In time, the truth about his management of the crisis will come out thanks to media reporting, whistle-blowers, and congressional investigations.
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Thomas O. Melia is Washington Director at PEN America. Previously, he served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, responsible for Europe and Eurasia, south and central Asia, and the Middle East, and as Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) until January 2017. Melia is a monthly columnist for The American Interest and chair of the board of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He was also a Fellow with the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, helping to lead a bipartisan initiative to reinvigorate American leadership in defense of human rights and democracy at home and abroad.
PEN America is a non-profit organization working at the crossroads between human rights and literature. They champion free speech around the world, celebrate creative expression, and defend the liberties that make it possible.
You can follow Tom on Twitter @thomasomelia and PEN America @penamerica.
A Bond special, not with James but Bruce, hear how this top tech exec turned non-profit CEO advances mitigating incivility & polarization as the solution to fighting the coronavirus and seeking common ground to heal our democracy. For more candid conversations on the “In The Arena” podcast, please subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud.
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In a new essay for The Atlantic, titled “We Are Living in a Failed State,” veteran writer George Packer observes: “If the pandemic really is a kind of war, it’s the first to be fought on this soil in a century and a half. Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.”
In this episode, Packer joins Derek Chollet to discuss what the pandemic has revealed about an already-broken America and why instead of being “the great leveler,” it has resulted in a deepening of existing fault lines—a trend that Packer predicts will continue as the November elections approach.
In this week’s episode of Politics In Question, Jamila Michener joins Julia, Lee, and James to consider the politics of race and class in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Michener is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Her research focuses on poverty, racial inequality, and public policy in the United States. Her recent book, Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018) examines how Medicaid—the nation’s public health insurance program for people with low income—affects democratic citizenship. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted marginalized communities? Will Americans hold the government accountable for its pandemic response? Is a political backlash coming? These are some of the questions Jamila, Julia, Lee, and James discuss on this week’s episode.
The COVID-19 coronavirus has upended American’s lives and heightened our anxieties. That’s likely to have a lot of political consequences. How do Americans respond to imminent threats and how does our anxiety change how we seek information, who we trust, and what policies we support? Bethany Albertson and Shana Gadarian find that Americans seek information, trust the experts, and seek protective policies in response to public health threats like infectious disease. But our biases increase and our instincts are often to blame outsiders. We explore research on anxiety in response to threats on a special conversational edition of the Science of Politics.