COVID-19 has killed millions and threatened the prospects of democracy for billions more. Since early 2020, the world has witnessed a marked expansion of governmental decision-making regarding health. Lockdowns and curfews were instated in many countries, and many freedoms were taken away under the justification of a major health threat. Health authorities and politicians alluding to or exploiting health authorities acquired extraordinary power to regulate society at large, including the application of mandates. A Freedom House report found that democracy grew weaker in 80 countries during COVID-19, and that in 2020 the number of free countries reached the lowest level in 15 years. Countries that regressed included ones you’d expect like China and Belarus, but also democratic bulwarks like the United States, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The United States was listed as one of the 25 countries that witnessed the steepest declines in freedom. Even if the pandemic enters a less threatening endemic phase (as may already be the case in several countries), the legacy of authoritarian measures and mandates may leave behind a more enduring threat to democracy.
Several governments responded to the lethal pandemic by undermining the very systems that were in place to ensure accountability and to protect public health and well-being. No single individual can be blamed for this—it was a systemic problem, as decisions taken by one government or government agency instantaneously affected the decisions of others. But the result was the restriction of basic freedoms and the normalization of scapegoating and exclusion, both historically a prelude to atrocities. While some extreme actions were justified as efforts to achieve otherwise laudable goals (like increasing rates of vaccination), the attempt to isolate vast numbers of people while whipping the general population into agreement on aggressive public health policies probably damaged even these goals.
Some people, organizations, corporations, and lobbyists (or combinations thereof) saw this crisis as an opportunity to establish some version of a desired ideological utopia, which, in reality, benefited only a zealous minority confident in their “truth”, “science,” or whatever name they used to legitimate blind dogmas. In the end, half of the world’s working population suffered financially under lockdowns, creating massive ripple effects. Most people thrive when they can make their own decisions within the boundaries of the law, even during a crisis. But the loss of these basic freedoms was celebrated as a victory for public health, even as the loss of basic freedoms probably made public health outcomes worse in several countries. Many citizens of the United States and other democracies saw their businesses shutter, their life’s work disappear, and were not allowed to visit sick and dying loved ones or to even attend their burials. Younger generations were probably affected most, as students saw their schools close and their social lives thwarted with consequences we won’t fully understand for many years.
A critical mass of people, especially among those hit hardest by the crisis or whose concerns were marginalized by political and health authorities, may eventually conclude that their governments and leaders have failed them. Frustration may be expressed through peaceful, democratic means (voting officials out of office, for example), or through riots and revolution. Across the world, we have already seen instances of both. The outcomes of such social explosions are by nature chaotic and unpredictable.
The worst way to address such circumstances is to double down on trying to replace concrete values like freedom and equality with goals like safety and health under the guise of “science” and the greater good. No reasonable person would question that all of these values and goals are worthy of our efforts. But when they clash (or are portrayed as clashing), democratic societies must make decisions on priorities. Once individual freedom has been downgraded as a priority, it is difficult to ever get back.
In navigating such difficult circumstances, we need to ask ourselves: What kind of society do we want to have, and what legacy do we want to leave behind to our descendants? To stay healthy and thrive, human beings need positive reinforcement, engagement, close relationships, meaning, and a sense of accomplishment. Even if run by benign “experts” or agencies, top-down societies in which decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people make it harder, not easier, for people to live these types of lives. It becomes still more difficult when small groups of people also preside over the concentration of wealth and information.
Many billionaires enjoyed a big expansion of not only their wealth but their influence over public decision-making during the pandemic. Some of them are no doubt brilliant human beings, well-intentioned benefactors, and generous philanthropists. But a big part of society’s increasing distrust of authorities has been the sense that elected representatives and health authorities have become too dependent on or susceptible to the lobbying and influence of tech and financial magnates.
Concern about the manipulation of power and influence has also been exacerbated by the performance of media and social media. It is critical in free, democratic societies that media never become a vessel for a single, state-sanctioned, official narrative at the expense of public debate and freedom of speech. The same applies for social media: Removing content considered “fake” or “false” in order to limit the ability of ordinary people to judge information for themselves only inflames polarization and distrust of the public sphere.
This is especially important in the realm of scientific debate. Anyone who believes that it’s possible to cleanse “science” of error through brute force censorship has no understanding of how science works or how accurate, unbiased evidence is accumulated in the first place. The idea of arbitrators who select what is correct and dismiss what is incorrect is the most alien possible concept to science. Without the ability to make errors or make (and improve on) inaccurate hypotheses, there is no science. The irony is that scientists understand (or at least should understand) and embrace (or at least should embrace) the fact that we all float in a sea of nonsense; it is the opportunist influencers and pundits, lacking in any understanding of the scientific method, who believe in the possibility of pure, unconflicted “truth.”
The population at large would benefit more from scientific skepticism (which doesn’t require a Ph.D.) than from the purging of “bias” by spurious information purifiers. Teaching free citizens about the risk of multifarious biases and how to prevent, detect, and avoid them is a job for educational institutions like schools and universities, not for tech companies, billionaires, federal bureaucrats, or online mobs. Being sensitized about bias has nothing to do with conspiracy theories, and may be the best way to diminish the alarming number of followers of conspiracy theorists. Willingness to acknowledge what we don’t know creates space for respect and dignity; pseudoscientific dogmatism only leads to bullying, violence, and repression. This is as true during times of crisis and emergency as it is during periods of peace and prosperity.
Many governments have demonstrated in the past three years that they can summarily impose decisions on free people without their consent, and can even whitewash their actions if they backfire. A balancing force is needed in a well-informed democracy to promote thoughtful discussion and the adoption of cautious and moderate policies, rather than conflicted agendas based on the proclamations of manipulated mobs. Intolerance and humiliation may seem like expedients, but tolerance and scientific humility may achieve even more.
As the pandemic ebbs, the years ahead will help determine whether we as democratic citizens and free people are still capable of making our own decisions, pursuing happiness, and refraining from harm, without falling prey to the authoritarian temptations that have felled democracies in the past.
John P.A. Ioannidis is Professor of Medicine and Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, as well as Professor (by courtesy) of Biomedical Data Science and Statistics, at Stanford University. His complete COVID-19-related publications can be found here.
Michaéla C. Schippers is Professor of Behavior and Performance Management at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and Director of the Erasmus Centre for Study and Career Success.