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Pandemic and democracy

The extraordinary powers assumed by governments to fight the virus should not become a burden on people after the outbreak recedes

Thucydides, a Greek historian, wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta. As Athens was defeated, its democratic polity and culture ended.

But did the war alone cause the fall of Athens? Thucydides gives a detailed account of the plague that devastated Athens killing nearly 1,00,000 people from 430 BC to 427 BC. The war historian writes like a social and moral critic disturbed by the selfishness, lawlessness, extravagance, neglect of the poor and immoral life in Athens. It was in the second year of the war that the epidemic broke out in Athens. Pericles was confident of thwarting the enemies, but as the course of events turned against Athens with the plague, which killed one-third of its population, people began to criticise him severely. “The plague has come upon us — the only point indeed at which our calculations has been at fault,” he said.

Great leveller

Epidemics do not have any timetable of action or any national, cultural or religious sensitivity. All are equal before them theoretically and practically. The plague started in Ethiopia, and spread to Egypt and Libya before infecting the population of Athens. Thucydides writes: “No pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations and so forth were equally found futile.”

The rich and poor, the healthy and weak “all proved equally incapable of resistance, all alike being swept away, although dieted with the utmost precaution.” “Some died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention.”

The descriptions of the plague appear more horrible than the cruelties of the war. Pericles contracted the plague and died in 429 BC. Thucydides was fortunate to recover from the disease. If the plague had not made that much havoc, Athenian democratic polity and ethos would not have been destroyed.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, it may not be unreasonable to surmise that the pandemic will have a disparaging impact on democratic systems in different countries. It does not mean that democracy will be eliminated, but the ostensible presence of democracy with undemocratic functioning of the governmental system may be the order of things in post-corona times. The pandemic necessitated governmental interventions imperative to save lives. Strict control on everyday activities has been applied with lockdowns in India and many other nations. A wide network of surveillance has been established in every country to identify the infected and to follow their movements, social contacts and activities.

The pandemic, in effect, has sanctioned ‘inevitable’ governmental powers as a social necessity. The government and its officials act like compassionate authorities respected by all. Some citizens have gone to the extent of bringing out eulogies about governmental benevolence. No doubt, we as citizens of India must acknowledge the farsightedness and sagacious guidance of our leaders. But the evolving social psychology of hero worship of political leaders appears to be a threat to rational and democratic ethos. Patriotic citizens of a democratic republic should not make the old mistake of shouting “long live the king”, which regrettably seems imminent. It may also happen that high-tech surveillance systems established for fighting the pandemic is going to stay on in the post-corona period as a political necessity to perpetuate the power of control on the citizens and to stifle the Opposition and critics. Lessons from history attest that science and technology have always been misused by ruling classes for safeguarding their vested interests.

Even in the time of a pandemic, there is no waning of hatred, greed, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, maladministration, corruption, and harassment of women and weaker sections in the world. Some people buy provisions as if they are going to live for eternity, while others go hungry. Some practise superstition. Some perpetrate religious hatred and make inhuman separation even for serving a little food to the hungry. Then there are politicians who try to make maximum advantage of the crisis by testing their ability to influence the masses and carve out an unquestionable paternalistic image of themselves. While some leaders are more concerned about their power and wealth, some others stand absolutely good for nothing. But the street dwellers, slum inhabitants, sex workers, agricultural and industrial workers, migrant workers, indigenous folks, blacks and a host of other marginalised human beings suffer the worst. They are the most vulnerable victims neglected by even the rich and powerful countries such as the U.S. It shows that the pandemic is a testing time for the democratic systems all over the world.

History tells us that epidemics have caused the fall of empires and brought about unprecedented social, economic and political changes. The plague of Athens destroyed the oldest democratic polity in the world. It is hoped that COVID-19 will not do the same to modern democracy.

“Death is not the worst end of life”, but it is the death of freedom. The “inevitable” powers entrusted in the government in pandemic times may not become an inevitable burden on the shoulders of people. According to Plato, democracy ultimately leads to tyranny, because the democratic winner becomes the champion of unlegislated desires, which makes him do awful things against the people. It is a caution and concern, not a gloomy note, for a better world.

varkey.joy1@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2020 12:09:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/pandemic-and-democracy/article31600134.ece

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