“As the world confronts COVID-19, democracy is crucial in ensuring the free flow of information, participation in decision-making and accountability for the response to the pandemic.”
On Tuesday September 15, the World will observe International Day of Democracy on the theme: “COVID-19: A Spotlight on Democracy.” UN Secretary General António Guterres “has urged governments to be transparent, responsive and accountable in their COVID-19 response and ensure that any emergency measures are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.”
See: https://www.un.org/en/observances/democracy-day for examples of the wide range of ways the Covid-19 crisis may “impair democracy and increase authoritarianism,” and for some concerns in many countries in the context of COVID-19. In the midst of misinformation, disinformation and fake news etc., “the most effective response is accurate, clear and evidence-based information from sources people trust” (UN).
While we would all agree that “democracy is as much a process as a goal” (UN), let us remember that it is a process that involves all of us. As Thomas Watson said, “Each citizen who participates in community affairs is keeping democracy alive. Every act of mercy and helpfulness, every word spoken for freedom, keeps the democratic spirit alive. Democracy is maintained by passing it on from one generation to another in the school, in place of worship, in the home. At every stage, it must be strengthened.”
During this critical juncture in our history, as we battle this dreadful virus and face the reality of our economic depression, our country needs us. This is no time for apathy and indifference. Ralph Nader is right, “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.” The challenge we face is that many parents, and indeed, many of our educational institutions, continue to fail to develop in children a clear understanding of what it means to be a citizen. We really need to look again at our curriculum. Our students should know of the attributes of a responsible democratic citizen.
We often sing along with David Rudder’s song, in joyful strains, “Sweet sweet T & T, Oh how I love up this country...the problems we have are plain to see...We still fight to be ah family, Indian, African or ah Chinee, Syrian, French-Creole and Portuguese...” If our problems are plain to see, what are we prepared to do for this country that we say we love?
We are the ones who have to strengthen our democracy/our democratic institutions, many of which are not well-structured or well-functioning. We are the ones to work to ensure that the basic principles of democracy inform the vision we have for taking our country forward eg transparency, accountability, social justice, equality, equity, the rule of law, citizen participation, promoting the dignity and fundamental rights of the individual, fostering the economic and social development of the entire community, strengthening the cohesion/inclusion of society, free and fair elections, and creating a climate in which peace, harmony, and unity can be realised.
Corruption continues to seep into our democratic system. Are our checks and balances, our anti-corruption and integrity mechanisms working effectively? Over the years an enabling environment has been created that allows this crime against society to continue. As Pope Francis has said, “Corruption diverts resources from the poor.” There is corruption at so many levels in society. And all this amidst scandalous social inequalities.
He said, “One of the greatest threats to democracy is the normalisation of social injustice and economic inequality...The basic question before a democratic society is, ‘How ought we to live together?’”
Our criminal justice system continues to play “catch up” as Criminologist, Ian Ramdhanie, has said. He and I, together with other key persons in our society, sat for more than 3 years on a Cabinet appointed Committee, The Parole Introduction Committee, to consider introducing a Parole System in T&T. The report must be collecting dust on some shelf. We continue to warehouse people in our prisons.
In our democracy, we say we subscribe to Restorative Justice, but we are not good at implementation. As Ramdhanie said, “With a properly working criminal justice system, innocent people will be set free in a reasonable time period, and guilty ones will be convicted, sentenced and have their punishment executed. Punishment may include fines, imprisonment, community service, reprimand and discharged etc.”
In today’s world, Audrey Tang is correct, “A strong democracy is a digital democracy.” Technological advances can be used to build the common good. And it’s time to address the defects in our Westminster style democracy.