Political parties have had little option but to give the government the space to roll-out its interventions and manage the spread of Covid-19. Managing a health crisis of this magnitude in a democracy requires cooperation from all political stakeholders.
The government is balancing the democratic rights of citizens — to ensure they are not infringed by its intervention measures — with protecting them from needless exposure to the pandemic.
It is constitutionally obligated to inform the public and political parties of its intervention plans on a regular basis, to limit unnecessary attacks on its mitigation strategies. Thus far, government decisions have been respected by all political stakeholders.
There are emerging lessons to note regarding democratic politics. First, all political stakeholders have broadly embraced the intervention plans of the government. This serves to strengthen parties’ political relations.
Second, politics does influence the success or failure of public health interventions. It begins by interrogating how health problems are considered in the policy agenda. This necessitates cooperation across the political spectrum. The interventions are dependent on political action (or inaction) because the social determinants of health are amenable to political interventions.
Third, political leaders are likely going to adopt incremental policy changes rather than comprehensive reforms given the scale of the effects of Covid-19 on our health system. Fiscal constraints facing the government will greatly influence the conditions under which larger scale transformation of the health sector can occur. But there are opportunities to be seized for innovation and therefore political parties and policymakers need to take advantage of them.
Fourth, since protecting public health involves moral judgments that acquire legitimacy through political debate and resolution, the continued constructive interaction between all political stakeholders (civil society, business, citizens and political parties) is crucial with regard to, for instance, the challenge of access to health services by all citizens irrespective of their social class, status, gender, race or nationality.
Although statistics and other products of professional research are useful tools to inform political decisions on such aspects as facilitating access to health and other basic services equitably, politicians need to acquaint themselves with these tools to make evidence-based decisions rather than ones based on commonplace information.
Fifth, all political parties have a moral obligation to support public awareness efforts regarding Covid-19 among their political constituencies. Although some opposition parties have done some work in this regard, the efforts need to be increased and sustained. Ongoing public health communication and sensitisation is critical in managing a crisis such as Covid-19. Such communication needs to be stepped up to support and complement the government’s efforts.
Covid-19 has changed our democratic politics. Responses to this challenge — and any other public health care challenges that may occur in the future — requires responsible cooperation from all political stakeholders. So government responsiveness must always be multi-stakeholder centered and bound by a system of checks and balances guided by our Constitution to protect the rights of citizens. All these aspects will be supported by the government respecting the institutional systems already in place that necessitate political accountability at each sphere of governance.
Public opinion in all these processes is critical for social and political stability. Elected political representatives rarely use public opinion as a guide for setting priorities and formulating proposals; instead, they use ready-made talk to generate public endorsement of policy proposals in which they have already invested their resources. Citizens involvement in all policy processes is critical for a stable democracy, especially in examining the feasibility of policy proposals, including financial affordability. Their voices matter.
Ultimately, with Covid-19 a new era of solidarity and social concern has come. Collectively, we need to work together irrespective of our political ideologies towards strengthening our public healthcare system, stabilising our economy and establishing a targeted social security support programme aimed at protecting the vulnerable in our society.
Dr Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. He writes in his personal capacity