State of emergency declarations have been deployed around the world in response to SARS-CoV-2 at the local, subnational, and national levels as necessary and common-sense short-term measures to manage the COVID-19 crisis. These state of emergency declarations generally suspend some checks on government power to allow for quick and decisive action, and often include provisions to quickly pass laws to protect public health, allocate or reallocate funds, or to update government policies and guidance as the emergency situation evolves. While these worthy goals may justify the use of emergency powers, what happens when the threat is no longer a short-term emergency? As some regions of the world begin to gradually return to a semblance of normalcy, disease models predict that SARS-CoV-2 may continue circulating for quite some time. While emergency declarations can be useful tools to manage short-term crises, they should be closely scrutinized to ensure that they are not contributing to democratic backsliding.
When examining states of emergency we should ask: how do we evaluate the use of laws intended to be temporary in this longer-term context; how do we change our understanding of what constitutes an emergency as we learn to live with COVID-19?; why do governments continuing to prolong states of emergencies as their vaccination rates increase?; how are these declarations different for nations lagging behind in their vaccine roll-out?; does the widespread and prolonged use of emergency powers threaten fragile progress towards democratic governance?; do inequitable vaccine rollouts risk creating disparate returns to democratic law-making processes, forcing those without access to vaccines to live under states of emergency?
The World Health Organization defines an emergency as “a state in which normal procedures are suspended and extraordinary measures are taken in order to avert a disaster.” While initial COVID-19 outbreaks met this definition and justified swift government action, continued clusters of SARS-CoV-2 cases have now been predicted by disease modelers. The clusters of cases that will emerge are now expected and foreseeable — no longer meeting this emergency definition — and could be contained through a more narrowly tailored approach than a state of emergency declaration.
Some degree of public health risk must be, and generally is tolerated, such as our acceptance of annual influenza and other endemic or seasonal diseases. As novel epidemics become contained, and case counts decrease, it becomes harder to justify the prolongation of states of emergency for disease, such as SARS-CoV-2. In most cases, if governments were to declare a state of emergency in anticipation of each flu season, we would likely see individuals protest. Governing mechanisms can anticipate these threats and implement targeted responses, rather than reacting with overly broad emergency declarations.
As outbreaks are controlled and vaccine coverage increases, COVID-19 threshold rates should be taken into account when lifting states of emergency. While restrictions on movement and gatherings are lifting in some countries, those same governments have kept their states of emergency in place. Lifting state of emergencies, however, should not be dependent on a complete eradication of COVID-19. Prolonging states of emergency, especially in the context of inequitable vaccine distribution, will not only continue to stratify public health outcomes, but may also extend to the health of civic, political, and democratic institutions.
Where states of emergency are necessary, governments should consider adopting emergency declarations that include sunset clauses or expiration dates, as extending such declarations could require both executive action and action from other branches of government, providing protection against democratic regression. Prolonged states of emergency may have a stifling effect on key democratic principles, including democratic debate, discussion, and participation, even when employed in the most benevolent and well-intentioned ways. Prolonged use of heavy-handed legal tools is cause for concern and must be scrutinized.
Additionally, states of emergency are often deployed in conjunction with restrictions that severely limit an individual’s ability to gather and protest, or how information can be disseminated. For example, in Armenia’s state of emergency, “any dissemination of information, including online, that refers to the coronavirus or activities carried out by health authorities may only refer to information provided by a special emergency office under the Prime Minister of Armenia.”
Expansive restrictions can make it challenging to effectively examine and discuss new laws and policies to combat COVID-19. This is particularly true in authoritarian states where the COVID-19 crisis has allowed leaders to whittle away at democratic freedoms and consolidate power. As one report found, “The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious ‘shock doctrine’ – to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times.”
One essential marker of democratic health is the ability of journalists to effectively do their jobs. The presence of a free press is particularly important for those living under states of emergency, when traditional forms of democratic debate may not be available. The World Press Freedom Index found that in 2020, journalism was completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries, representing a dramatic deterioration from the previous years. This year’s World Democracy Index had similar findings about the state of democracies, with the global average score of the index falling to its lowest level ever recorded, due largely to the restrictions imposed to control the pandemic.
When we consider all of these factors, the widespread and prolonged use of emergency powers becomes worrisome and risks contributing to widening inequality among democratic nations. We, as a global community, should demand that governments be willing to impose limitations on their own powers, making emergency declarations the exception instead of the rule.