The “state of emergency” should not be a “state of mind”

And European democracies cannot be reshaped into “coronavirus democracies”

The coronavirus pandemic is completely transforming our societies. From changes to everyday life and the halt of social activities to the damaged economies and the health crisis, this is an unprecedented situation that plagues the whole world. It’s a continuous “state of emergency”.

But what happens with the conditions of the other “state of emergency”, the one the authorities impose?

The coronavirus pandemic has also vast implications for governance and human rights. Both security and freedom are goods that organized societies enjoy and those who are in power are responsible to provide them. Nevertheless, it is more than understandable that national emergencies require restrictions on personal freedom. The question that lies though is how far these restrictions extend.

As of now, Europe leads the world in active coronavirus cases (8,359,051) and is second in deaths (320,884) behind North America. The second wave of the pandemic brought disruption in the continent with most of the European governments imposing lockdown restrictions. A discussion of what went wrong with the management of the pandemic seems necessary, especially when other parts of the world had successfully curbed the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, decision-makers espouse almost the same tactics they applied during the first wave of the pandemic.

As a consequence, protests are erupting against governmental measures across Europe. At a time when a health crisis is unfolding, people are not taking into consideration the dangers of gathering in crowds. Instead, they realize the wrongdoings of authorities and seek to speak out their minds. People in Portugal, in Germany, in the Czech Republic, in Italy, in Spain, all are demonstrating because they are experiencing a déjà vu from last spring. Most of them are facing excessive police violence when, at the same time, they live with the brutal uncertainty of an impending economic catastrophe. 

A few days ago, on 13 November, the European Parliament expressed concerns regarding the imposing “state of emergency” measures in Europe. The resolution that was passed with 496 votes urges European governments not to abuse the emergency powers on the occasion of the pandemic. Among others, it states that emergency powers must not be excluded from democratic scrutiny, bans on freedom of assembly must not be used recklessly and safeguarding human rights principles should be a priority.

The warnings from the European Parliament need to echo into every corner of the continent. Democratic institutions must function properly no matter the conditions. It’s a prerequisite for not letting authoritarian practices to emerge. European governments need to protect their populations from the coronavirus pandemic but they also need to protect their rights. When a new law is introduced public dialogue (and this includes protests) continues to be an integral democratic value that cannot be lifted due to coronavirus. Concurrently, communications technology provides us with tools to enhance democracy and participation.

Why Europe seems to neglect all these? Is it a matter of unwillingness or the effects of a sudden change? No matter what the answer is, the “state of emergency” cannot be a “state of mind”, particularly when the future appears to be dark.