September 14, 2020

'Hope in a Time of Pandemic' Issue Spotlight #4: Political Institutions

‘Hope in a Time of Pandemic’ Issue Spotlight: Political Institutions

COVID-19 has accelerated unprecedented change. The need for just and merciful leadership has never been more urgent than in the midst of this unfolding crisis. The stories and experiences featured in the Mercy Global Action COVID-19 Response Task Force report ‘Hope in a Time of Pandemic – Responding to COVID-19 through a Mercy Lens’ have revealed the importance of leaders and political institutions that are grounded in the realities of people and Earth and are responsive to the range of health, economic and social distress caused by COVID-19. 

What has been revealed in terms of political institutions:

  1. An expansion of political power, and a risk of rising authoritarianism 

To tackle the COVID-19 crisis, and given the magnitude of its human, social and economic impacts, governments around the world have taken on extraordinary powers which limit people’s ability to move freely or to assemble in large groups. People around the world have sacrificed their individual freedoms to benefit collective public health outcomes. Indeed, international human rights law permits restrictions on liberty in times of national emergency that are necessary and proportionate. 

Nevertheless, in all regions of the world, authoritarian-minded leaders have capitalized on public distraction and reduced oversight to use this expansion of power to erode and weaken democratic norms and practices or to reinforce and strengthen their reliance on authoritarian politics. They have seized the opportunity to silence dissidents and to consolidate power in the name of public safety. 

In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on free access to timely, accurate information. Censorship and misinformation have not only led to the spread of COVID-19 but in some places has created public distrust of scientific expertise which functions to protect public health. Hate speech and xenophobia have also led to terrible acts of violence around the world as people of Chinese or Asian descent and international migrants have been vilified and blamed for spreading the virus. This has sometimes been reinforced by government leaders who have been keen to attribute blame for the pandemic. 

Racial justice is also linked closely with the effects of COVID-19. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put racial and ethnic minority groups at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. The Mercy World has heard many stories that illustrate the pain, frustration and discrimination that many people have experienced in response to police abuses of power amid lockdown.

The health crisis will eventually recede but autocratic governments’ dangerous expansion of power may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies. It is now paramount for people around the world to care not only about the health of the individuals around us but for the health of our government institutions as well. In order to achieve the structural transformation necessary to address inequalities, to reach excluded and marginalized people and to protect the environment, we will need strong and inclusive democratic institutions that are responsive to the needs of all people and the planet.

We need to ensure that the fruits of all social constructs – politics, economics and other social systems – benefit all people in an equitable fashion, as these entities use the resources of our one planet, resources that belong to all of us, not just to the elite and powerful.” (Mercy Sister, Newfoundland)

  1. A need for international cooperation and bold, compassionate response and recovery

In our hyperconnected world, the public health and socio-economic effects of the pandemic require a global response. International cooperation is, and will continue to be, vital for sharing expertise, medicine, equipment, research and development particularly in the provision of treatment and assistance to affected people and in the search for a vaccine. Cooperation will also be essential to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic. Countries that accelerate their efforts to implement their existing human rights and sustainable development commitments will be better placed to recover from the human and economic devastation caused by COVID-19. 

“Without global empathy and better global leadership, the poorest countries and the poorest people will only be made poorer by this invisible enemy.” (Mercy Sisters, Aotearoa New Zealand)

While deeply painful, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity for us individually and as societies to stop, to look inwards and to pursue transformative systemic change. In order to “build back better,” governments have a critical role to play in designing and implementing relief and recovery packages that uphold the values of dignity and solidarity, remedy the inequalities that have been amplified by the pandemic, redistribute resources and put us on track for a more sustainable economy.

In the short-term, government interventions will have immediate impacts on public health, social inclusion and the wellbeing of people experiencing socio-economic stress and uncertainty. In the long-term, governments need to show leadership and political will by investing in universal health, social protection, and environmental policies, not only in times of crisis, but also in order to be more resilient to future disasters. Governments must make these policies inclusive and non-discriminatory in ways that give special attention to protecting the lives and livelihoods of at-risk and marginalized groups.

COVID-19 is forcing governments and stakeholders to revisit values and design development policies that truly balance economic, social and environmental progress. Leveraging this moment of crisis, when usual policies and social norms have been disrupted, governments have the opportunity to take bold steps to steer the world towards a profound systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet. It is up to governments to lead with strong political will and to mobilize resources to invest in policies and institutions that can turn the tide on inequality.

What are we being called to?

  • Exercise your political rights, including your rights to freedom of association, opinion and expression. Register to vote and vote in local, sub-national and national elections. 
  • Combat racism, xenophobia and hate speech, and work to actively dismantle racist systems and pursue racial justice
  • Promote accurate health information regarding the spread of COVID-19 and eventual treatments and vaccines
  • Advocate to your government representatives to strengthen democratic institutions by increasing transparency, promoting participatory decision-making from all stakeholders and implementing peaceful, just, and inclusive solutions for the benefit of people and the planet.
  • Spread the word across your own social media platforms by sharing ‘Hope in a Time of Pandemic’ and MIA Global Action’s infographic on COVID-19 and Political Institutions on social media. Please engage with us on Twitter @MIAGlobalAction and @MercyWorldwide.

Learn More: 

Messages to: Cecilie Kern - Global Policy & Research Advocate MIA-MGA

Back to All News