Democracy in an age of pandemics

Posted on: 29 April 2020

The Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest online-only Behind the Headlines discussion tackled the topic of democracy and pandemics, with an international panel of speakers from Trinity College Dublin, Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The discussion kicked  off a five-part series ‘Rethinking Democracy in an Age of Pandemics’ starting on April 29th, as a collaboration between the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute and the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University.

Professor Ahuvia Kahane, Regius Professor of Greek (1761) and A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in Trinity’s Department of Classics, said that pandemics are great democratic levellers; they strike everyone, from prime ministers to the homeless. Yet “epidemics can destroy, not just lives, not just society, but what we might think of as the very instincts of nature itself.”

We can see this looking at the historian Thucydides’ account of the plague that struck ancient Athens in 430 BCE, killing its leader Pericles and marking the beginning of the end of Athenian democracy.

During the plague, the streets were strewn with corpses. And yet, as Thucydides says, even dogs refused their scavenging instinct and stayed clear of the dead.

Professor Kahane suggested that democracy and the past are inseparable. He argued what we might learn from the Plague of Athens is that the road to recovery may be even longer than we think:

After we have prevailed, the struggle to preserve everything else that gives meaning to our democratic existence, only begins.

Dr Lilith Acadia, Marie Skodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub, proposed a framework for citizens to use during the Covid-19 Pandemic – a series of tests to determine “pretext.”

“Pretext”, she said is a category of speech “which serves to manipulate the audience” or “conceal motivating reasons.” Pretext serves as a framework in which we can distinguish valid reasons for introducing new policies during COVID-19 to invalid justifications used to manipulate publics.

Dr Acadia said that “those in power can use the pandemic as a pre-text for accelerating the attack on democracy.” She argued, that “in times of crisis”, like this pandemic, “we need frameworks and tools to make sense of the chaos.”

According to Dr Acadia, although we “need to relinquish some civil liberties” to reduce spread of disease, we must be cautious of extensive “infringement on civil liberties” which “may be justified as disease prevention”.

I hope that citizens will look closely at their leaders’ justifications, and similarly throw out the pretext.

Shamus Khan, professor of Sociology at Columbia University, opened by saying that the pandemic has forced us to note “just how much the unimaginable has become real.”

“Not long ago we were told we have no money for a range of social programmes, and we’ve spent 2.5 trillion dollars in a span of weeks”, he said from his New York home, adding, we might wonder, “where that money came from?”

In the United States, he continued, “where we have so many people in prison, those prisoners have just been let out, and as it turns out, they’ve been let out without incident; maybe they didn’t need to be there in prison after all.”

Speaking on inequality, Professor Khan said that “crises in our democracy have helped produce some of the experiences we have with COVID-19.”

There have been “moral failures”, Professor Khan argued, when it comes to democracy and inequality. COVID-19 is not universally experienced but reflective of the huge pattern of inequality in our society.

The wealthy, he said, are ‘‘fundamentally less at risk of COVID”, citing the illnesses concentrated among the poor that put them more at risk.

The unimaginable has become real but we might start asking ourselves, what are the unimaginable things that would make for a better world, that we might be able to make real at the end of this moment.

Peter Baldwin is a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, where he is interested in the politics of disease prevention, which he said varies greatly among nations across the world.

From Cholera to AIDS, Professor Baldwin argued that looking to history for pointers, “the only conclusion we can draw is that epidemic disease has been treated in a lot of different ways’’.

“Is the capacity to deal with pandemics a matter of politics?”, he asked.

While autocracies can command their citizens, Professor Baldwin argued, citizens of liberal and democratic regimes are able to “buy-in to the need for making changes.”

Examining the different categories of measures and the countries that have subscribed to them during the Covid-19 crisis, Professor Baldwin said “we have a series of stark differences in approach to what is, in effect, a common problem.”

Which of these strategies is right, is something we’re not going to know for years to come.


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