This new year, rather than rejoicing in the promised Malaysia as visioned three decades ago — we face devastating floods, an unrelenting pandemic, and just recently, a declaration of an Emergency.
And to these, add how experts are warning that worse is yet to come as the planet continues to warm, and human activity continues in an unsustainable manner — pushing humanity, the planet, and every other lifeform on it closer to the point of no return.
Considering the challenges of today and tomorrow, what lessons can we take from 2020 into 2021?
The first would be the importance of having an effective government.
While some prefer to contrast the outcomes of democratic and non-democratic systems of governance, I argue that form does not necessarily negate performance.
In terms of handling the pandemic at the very least, democracies such as New Zealand and Taiwan have had outstanding successes; while non-democratic China and Vietnam have seen equal amounts of success too.
Rather than form, factors such as the quality of public institutions, continued investments in key infrastructure, and trust levels in experts can play huge roles in determining the outcome of crisis countermeasures.
But having said this, it ought to be remembered that certain forms of government are more accountable owing to the need to secure democratic mandate, thus more likely to allow the above to happen.
The second is the need for trust in lawmakers.
The past year of pandemic life has illustrated that in responding to a full-blown crisis, a whole-of-society response must be mustered.
As an example, while policymakers are responsible in deciding when to implement cordon sanitaires, the public must acquiesce their fundamental right to free movement to give effect to this policy decision.
Research done by Bargain and Aminjonov in Europe last year supports this, with findings showing higher levels of trust in politicians resulting in higher compliance rates with movement containment measures.
Towards managing this glass-like relationship, policymakers must at all times be honest and transparent with their decision-making, and explain the reasons underlying public policy to the public.
This can then secure public approval, and allow the public to commit as a policy-stakeholder, rather than a mere policy-receiver.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s thorough explanation of her government’s decision-making process prior to implementing their version of a movement control order is exemplary of this.
The third is that a crisis does not necessarily only create new problems, but also exacerbates existing ones.
For example, economically, the gap between the haves and haves-not in most economies have been growing for some time now, and will only continue with no foreseeable end.
This is as the economy further pivots towards digital-based activities and automation in response to the pandemic, leaving behind swathes of the blue-collar workforce unable to make this transition.
In responding to this, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals’ pledge to “leave no one behind” cannot be more relevant as we plan for the future.
Ignoring this will not only come at the expense of those already marginalised and vulnerable to economic shocks, but also exposing countries to the risk of its politics being hijacked by populist politicians.
The cases of Argentina’s Jair Bolsanaro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban bear examples of this.
The fourth is how politics, often accepted as fact that it has to be Machiavellian in nature, can have real consequences to the fabric of society.
The American example of having a President that peddles lies around the clock and the consequences of which needs no elaboration.
In moving forward, the concepts of mutual toleration of political opponents and institutional forbearance, put forth by Levitsky and Ziblatt need to be introduced where absent and doubled-down where present.
In short, the former relates to how those at the opposite end of the political aisle ought not to be viewed as enemies, but rather as partisan rivals; while the latter refers to refraining from actions that, while technically could be aligned with the letter of the law, would alter its spirit in such a way that the political playing field becomes unequal.
With this, perhaps politics can pivot towards building consensus and away from toxic partisanship.
To close, despite the feeling of helplessness throughout much of 2020, we should rejoice in how when properly motivated, human ingenuity can lead us to achieving great things — as seen with the development of COVID-19 vaccines in record-time.
That said, considering the challenges we face today and those yet to come, it would be a shame should we learn nothing from the solitude, sickness, and suffering of 2020.
This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 15 January 2021.