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Our Democracies Before and After COVID-19

- Tefo Mosienyane, M&E Officer

Often with the enemy at the gates or in times of crisis, the Roman Senate would appoint a magistrate to hold absolute power for the duration of the emergency. In a similar vein, we have seen many African countries enact emergency powers, set up task forces with extensive powers and place temporary restrictions on citizens’ movements, consumption and participation in the labour market in the advent of the Corona pandemic. African governments, in general, have been lauded for enacting measures quickly, using lessons from past experiences of epidemics such as Ebola and the commendable resolve of their citizenry who stoically followed regulations despite hardship. As South Africa prepares to relieve most of its restrictions, we should look at lessons learnt from the continent’s legislative bodies.

Over the last couple of months we have experienced an array of responses from African Parliaments; deafening silence of many legislatures across the continent, to the heightened transparency and scrutiny mechanisms embraced by some, to others that have completely abdicated their responsibilities to the Executive. In the parliaments that have abdicated their legislative, oversight and representative responsibilities to the succession of (temporary) executive rule, we have seen how civil compliance has been policed by militarisation and public humiliation in some countries. In others, Parliament and the Executive have colluded to legislate information laws to pursue political rivals and rush through poorly explained legislation. There have also been cases where ethical considerations around evidence-use have been back-seated to patriotic and wartime rhetoric that overrides legal and ethical principals in the gathering, handling and use of sensitive health data.

While it is seductive to believe times of crisis call for the suspension of checks and balances in favour expediency and decisiveness, but as we have learnt from better-performing legislatures that it is, in fact, in these times of uncertainty and panic when our nations need transparency, representation and reliable information the most. In these legislatures we saw parliaments:

  • Provide oversight to safeguard the trust we have readily provided to our governments and sacrifices we have made to these ends;
  • Pay attention to the specific needs, changing circumstances and concerns of those who they represent;
  • Scrutinise all emergency legislation, and relay their consequences in accessible ways to their constituents;
  • Ensure legislative and oversight decisions are based on evidence rather than personal or political whims
  • Put in place protocols to ensure ethical collection and use of sensitive data, as well as insuring the regulations and oversights exists for the security of this information.

The impact of these decisions transcend the immediate concerns of our healthcare systems and will shape our economies, politics and culture forever. Decisions that normally spend years in the democratic processes of deliberations and contestations before being passed are now passed in a matter of hours. A significant number of these short-term emergency decisions may remain in place long after the pandemic has passed. Without being dramatic, evidence-based policymaking may be what stands between a despotic future or one where African nations rise from the ashes as our wildest dreams!