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Pandemic threat to democracy

“This morning I woke up in a curfew, oh God I was a prisoner too. Could not recognise the faces standing over me, they were all dressed in uniforms of brutality” — Bob Marley

March 2020 will go down as the month that changed the world. Think about it. A month ago, most of us were unaware that the term “social-distancing” would be so impactful to our life and our new reality. There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives swiftly and severely.

There are few who would disagree that we are facing an unprecedented challenge. Politically, there is an impulse to be non-partisan as this deepening crisis forces us to pull together. Because of this, now is the time when our leadership should be even more mindful to go out of its way to protect our democracy.

Whenever a state of emergency is declared or a curfew is imposed, it means that our civil liberties are suspended in addition to our constitutional rights. Necessity should never blind us to the facts that we are no longer allowed to congregate in our churches, move about freely, travel without police and regiment stops, and are confined to our homes by decree. These are priceless freedoms that we have forfeited.

A disaster of this magnitude may entice some to horde or display unbridled power in the name of that disaster. For example, on Monday, the populist Government of Hungary passed a coronavirus Bill that gives their prime minister the power to rule by decree and to govern unchallenged.

There is no end date in sight and there are severe penalties regarding speech. Civil rights and society groups have declared that democracy in Hungary is effectively over in the name of fighting the novel coronavirus.

Undoubtedly, there is a high level of understanding that drastic steps are necessary in extreme times. This is the very reason why these steps should not be taken without communicating clearly why they are being taken. Our leaders should be providing explanations and information to let us know what they intend to achieve and how long it will take.

There should be a healthy dose of suspicion of government action in the best of times. Even more is required when the world has been turned upside down and things are changing so rapidly. Governments should take the basic steps to avoid suspicion or ulterior motives of acting in the best interest of their political ambitions rather than for the public's good.

Again, it is understood that our leaders and decision-makers are pressured by the urgency of what Bermuda faces. However, it is what democracy demands in difficult circumstances. We need our government and the opposition to understand this. Accountability to the public is not a nuisance or hindrance but it is an indispensable asset to democracy in crisis.

I am among those questioning why the curfew imposed starts at 8pm until 6am? Why were those times chosen? Some are asking sarcastically, does the virus stop spreading during daytime hours? During the press conferences, these answers are not provided.

Logic says that those answers should have been provided up front, but they were not. Regardless of how well-intended the police checks and imposed curfew are, even if not well-advised, accountability and a proper explanation were omitted.

It appears as if the leadership's attitude is, “we are in a crisis and should not be questioned”.

Sadly, we are seeing this on social media as well, where people are suggesting that the leaders should not be questioned. We should always be prepared to question, leaders should be prepared to answer and to account for decisions especially when there are glaring omissions and explanations.

A similar misstep occurred when the original list came out regarding who was exempted from the curfew. The list was added to as more parties registered their valid objections. It appears that there was limited consultation on such an important matter regarding our liberties and constitutional rights.

One of the first major decisions of the Government was to increase borrowing by $150 million. This brings our overall debt burden to almost $3 billion. In the frenzy of the moment, it was met with little opposition because we are facing so many unknowns.

The explanation on why $150 million was borrowed and how it will be spent has also been sketchy. Why didn't we borrow $100 million or $400 million? I invite the Opposition and all Bermudians to be vigilant that the promise of drawing down on that sum “only if absolutely necessary” is kept.

We should also be updated on exactly how much is being spent and what it is being spent on. If not, we will continue borrowing and raising the debt with no accountability, especially when our minds are focused on the coronavirus and surviving in our own personal capacities. Being less than transparent in this regard will not build the trust required for us as a nation to succeed in overcoming the crisis we are in.

Also, a lack of transparency does not diminish our concerns that our democracy still will be intact after this crisis has passed and the police and soldiers are withdrawn from our streets. We should remember that this is the same government that has delivered unprecedented attacks on the judiciary, the media, the wealthy, the system and have allegedly removed people from their positions.

Over the past year, they have been spouting off the most divisive rhetoric that we have ever heard in our country. Turning a blind eye to all of this for the sake of this critical moment is not the same as forgetting that it never happened, and is likely to happen again without appropriate checks and balances.

It is increasingly obvious that we are going to be experiencing the effects of this dismal period for a long time. The success of Bermuda has always been connected to the success of the world, especially the United States and Britain. Those countries are predicting to be “back to normal” at the end of summer. Bermuda has set a date of April 13, which undoubtedly will be pushed back as our cases of positive Covid-19 tests have quickly reached 32 cases and are expected to increase. This is a high number given our population and limited landmass.

Bermuda, we must remain vigilant during this time. It would be wise that we congratulate, support and also hold our leadership accountable. This is not the time to follow blindly without asking questions and giving up our civil liberties and constitutional rights without proper explanation and thought.

Bigger decisions are expected to be required in the future. A future that we have no idea at this point about how it will look.

We will need to trust the leadership as never before. That trust will be earned or wasted depending not only on what we do over the next six months to a year, but more importantly on how we do it. Without that trust we will fail with extreme consequences for all of us.

Vic Ball was a One Bermuda Alliance senator from November 2014 to July 2017

Sweeping powers: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is ruling by decree (Photograph by Katerina Sulova/CTK/AP)

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Published April 02, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated April 02, 2020 at 8:54 am)

Pandemic threat to democracy

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