Coronavirus: What next for Democracy? A report from the European Forum Alpbach

By Neus Vidal-Martí

From 23 August to 3 September 2020, the 75th European Forum Alpbach was held as a 12-day online conference. The European Forum Alpbach is an interdisciplinary platform for science, politics, business and culture. The annual event addresses relevant socio-political questions of our time. Neus Vidal-Martí (re:constution Fellows 2019-20) covers the international conference and focuses on Human Rights, Democracy and Press Freedom challenges.

“I’m afraid I haven’t heard you,” says a Minister when asked about her country’s stance on Fundamental Rights. In January, this would have been a classic way to avoid a tough question. Now, just another reminder of the dystopian times we live in. The journalist asks the question again from home. The politician, at her office in a European capital, confirms she has heard it and answers.

They were supposed to meet in September at the European Forum Alpbach. Every summer since 1945 hundreds of speakers and participants gather in this Austrian village to exchange ideas on global affairs. On its 75th anniversary it resorted to a hybrid format, moving mostly online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo: Bogdan Baraghin

A few weeks after the event, the second wave is not hypothetical anymore. It has reached almost all European countries and the virus is quickly spreading in most cities and regions. As a reaction to that and to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed, governments are implementing new lockdowns and curfews. Therefore, many of the questions asked at the Forum Alpbach are now even more relevant than a month ago. 

How will Europe cope with a health and economic crisis? Are all confinement policies legal? What can be done to prevent misinformation about cures and vaccines? These were just some of the topics that were discussed in the 300 sessions that gathered 5,000 participants from 134 countries.

Act fast to stop the spread

“The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation made the headlines early this year when he asked governments to act fast. It was mid-March and the first Coronavirus outbreak in Europe was hitting the north of Italy. All countries had to make quick choices about whether to go into lockdown and, more challenging, how to do it.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to act, measures had to be taken fast,” recalled Austria’s Justice Minister Alma Zadić in one of the Forum’s sessions. “You are faced with a situation in which you have to restrict basic freedoms to protect the life and health of citizens. That’s extremely difficult.”

Speed was key. “Those policy-makers that recognised the risks early are doing better. Being alarmist and being pro-precaution would have been better from the beginning,” said Eric Feigl-Ding in one of the Covid-19 debates.

Balancing rights

To face the challenge, most governments resorted to emergency powers. Lockdowns and curfews were established around the world and basic freedoms were severely limited. A few months later most have been restored, but many countries are reimposing restrictions. The legality of many of these decisions remains to be seen.

“We are going to see important jurisprudence from Courts that will give us a road map for the future. Court cases are a late indicator of a problem. Human Rights limitations must be necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory,” said Michael O’Flaherty, director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, in one of the sessions.

Bruno Stagno, from Human Rights Watch, also expressed concerns over the extent of these measures and warned that some governments have used them “to consolidate themselves in power, also in Europe.”  Former Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty summed it up: “The more you suppress Human Rights and freedoms the less likely you are to control the pandemic. Dealing with a pandemic requires you to be more Human Rights friendly.”

Hitting those already vulnerable

In just a few weeks, all students were sent home. Lectures moved online. Adults turned their living rooms into makeshift offices. However, not everybody had the same opportunities. How do kids learn without access to a computer or internet? How do you wash your hands if there is no running water? Or stay at home if you have no home?

“Covid showed us even more the weaknesses that were there before, the gaps between countries and between societies. In functioning societies with common values where everyone felt responsible the virus seemed less successful,” argued business manager Simone Menne at the Forum.

Data published around the world supports this thesis. Recent research has shown that children are currently months behind in their studies and BAME groups are hit the hardest by the virus. The UN has also warned that the pandemic could reverse the limited progress made on gender equality.

One of the Forum panels focused on the role of women in crisis, where several speakers from different countries showed that women were not only impacted by the virus but also by lockdown measures. According to data from the European Institute for Gender Equality, 76% of healthcare workers in the EU are women. Austrian politician and medical doctor Mireille Ngosso pointed out that “those who kept the system running need to be better paid and have better working conditions.”

Speakers from different sessions agreed that inequalities from Covid-19 would be suffered for many years. “There’s an economic crisis looming on the horizon and we need to get serious about socio-economic rights,” said O’Flaherty.  

Red zones and European cooperation

“At the European level we need strong cooperation and work hard to keep our borders open if possible,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the conference. Freedom of movement was one of the first victims of the pandemic. In March, most European states closed their borders and only reopened them in the summer, with many restrictions.

As cases surge and countries fear a second wave, quarantines and multiple declarations of red zones between European countries have limited again Freedom of movement. The European Commission has adopted a proposal that would include common criteria to ensure that any measures taken by Member States are coordinated but, at the time of writing, no agreement had been reached regarding quarantines and tests of travellers from affected areas.

 “Cross-border issues like Covid-19 need to be jointly regulated in the European Union instead of having member states declaring red zones on each other,” said Andreas Maurer, Political Science Professor at the University of Innsbruck. Professor Markus Frischhut compared it to a football game: “If players run in different directions they are not going to win against the virus.”

Misinformation: A vaccine to rule them all?

Bleach to kill the virus, 5G technology spreading it and vaccines with chips to control our minds. These are just some of the Coronavirus hoaxes that have been spread over that last six months, sometimes by politicians and government officials from several countries.

“Disinformation has accelerated and amplified in 2020 but it’s not new. The virus has shown how dangerous it can be for society because it prevents from communicating clearly on health or policy issues. Disrupting disinformation requires transparency,” explained Joanna Rohozińska, Resident Program Director at the International Republican Institute.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz also referred to this challenge in one of the Media Under Fire sessions led by Columbia Professor Anya Schiffrin. “One of the real dangers of what is being transmitted over social media is the anti-facts movement. Misinformation about the virus can result in deaths and will impede the ability to respond to the pandemic.”

According to a recent report published in the The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, rumours and conspiracy theories are to blame for deaths and hospitalisations of thousands of people worldwide. Authors estimate that 800 deaths can be attributed to drinking highly concentrated alcohol, which has been wrongly advertised as a cure for Coronavirus. Vaccines, which are still under development, have already been branded as unsafe by several groups that will oppose mass inoculation.  

“There are lots of fake news about the virus but since it’s a critical and sensitive issue people are also trying to look for information from researchers and scientists. Covid is returning the pendulum into trying to create a discourse that’s more evidence-based,” argued Professor Karine Nahon.

“Spend as much as you can but keep the receipts”

To mitigate the economic consequences of the pandemic most governments have offered financial help and furlough schemes for companies and workers. “Never before have we done so much so fast,” said International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva while sending a warning to countries: “Spend as much as you can but keep the receipts. Show us how you spent the money. We are asking for ex-post audits and transparent and competitive procurement. Transparency is citizens’ best friend and it’s the best tool for accountability.”

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pointed out in a keynote speech that “times of crisis give way to corruption,” and asked governments to strengthen their anti-corruption policies. “Corruption diverts funds away from the public at a time when they are needed for a global health emergency,” added OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría. 

Will countries be more transparent with funds to fight Covid-19? It remains to be seen. Will Courts decide that some of the measures taken to stop the spread of the virus were unlawful? Will the EU agree on common criteria to restrict free movement? Will misinformation affect vaccine development?

Long-term effects of the virus are still unknown and so are many of the consequences the pandemic and lockdowns will have on citizens and countries. As political scientist Ivan Krastev said in a keynote speech: “We are suddenly living in a world with nostalgia and imagination. We miss the pre-Covid world that we lost, and we have to face the fact that many things that were unthinkable can easily happen very quickly.”


Neus Vidal-Martí is a journalist and political scientist. She is a Lecturer at the Open University of Catalonia and was a re:constitution Fellow of the Forum Transregionale Studien in the academic year 2019-20.


Citation: Neus Vidal-Martí, Coronavirus: What next for Democracy? A report from the European Forum Alpbach, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25168.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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