Over 170 countries have adopted emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the severity of the pandemic required significant government action, many of these responses have restricted fundamental freedoms and undermined the rule of law. Furthermore, overly broad emergency measures have threatened to undermine democracy and the rule of law itself, expanding and concentrating executive powers at the expense of the rest of the government.
As we look forward to the threat posed by the pandemic subsiding, the fate of these emergency measures remains uncertain. Experts have observed that measures adopted in response to emergencies tend to persist and become permanent. The unprecedented nature and scope of states’ pandemic responses and their far-reaching effects on civil society, democratic governance, and the rule of law increase the risk that this pattern will hold true for COVID-19 emergency measures.
Civil society and its allies in government, the donor community, and international organizations have an important part to play in minimizing this risk. Now is the time to come together and encourage states to extinguish emergency measures that are no longer needed. Where measures are still necessary, there must be regular, independent oversight to ensure those that remain are necessary, proportionate, legitimate, and non-discriminatory. To play this part effectively, civil society and its allies must better understand the threat posed by emergency powers and how they can work together to advance the improvement or recission of emergency powers effectively.