When it comes to guiding their country through a pandemic, many world leaders have led by example. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demonstrated hand-washing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested alternative ways of greeting others. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into voluntary self-isolation after his wife tested positive for the coronavirus.
But as the severity of the outbreak has grown, and as the demands on the public have become more stringent, the capacity for democratic leaders and institutions to lead by example has come under strain. Just as more and more people are being advised to stay home, officials around the world are having to run large departments and keep the machinery of government going. The restrictions on large social gatherings in places such as France and Italy are only just being implemented in legislatures.
This cannot hold—at least not for much longer. The coronavirus has forced virtually everyone and everything to adapt, and the ways in which our democracies function are no exception. As the outbreak intensifies, the question isn’t if this shift to avoiding common offices and assemblies will start affecting how governments operate, but when. Can democracies work from home like so many of us? And at what point will governments have no choice but to try?
When Johnson addressed British lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday for Prime Minister’s Questions, he didn’t have much of an audience. The chamber’s famous green benches, typically obscured by the hundreds of parliamentarians squeezing onto them, were in full view as he took questions from the dozens of colleagues permitted to attend the weekly gathering (those not scheduled to ask a question were asked to observe from afar).
This is one of the procedural changes the British government has made in recent weeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Postponing upcoming local elections, previously scheduled for May, until next year is another. In most respects, though, British governance has more or less continued unchanged. Parliament remains open and, despite some efforts to reduce the number of face-to-face interactions, many lawmakers, parliamentary staffers, and civil servants are still going into the office as normal. Several journalists, packed tightly together, continue to attend Johnson’s daily news conferences on the pandemic.
Though the lack of further social-distancing measures has enabled the British government to function as normal, it has also put it at higher risk. The number of lawmakers exposed to the outbreak is increasing almost daily, with more than two dozen already under self-isolation, of which two are confirmed to have contracted the disease. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist advising Downing Street on its coronavirus strategy, announced this week that he too had started developing symptoms. “There is a lot of COVID-19 in Westminster,” he said in a tweet.
Britain’s isn’t the only government that has been slow to adapt to this new reality. In the United States, millions of federal workers are continuing to report to the office even as public-health officials have advised the rest of the country to do the opposite. (Although the Trump administration issued new guidance on Sunday asking government agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities,” it doesn’t necessarily apply to all federal workers.) India’s lawmakers, who have been exempted from social-distancing restrictions, continue to gather in Parliament. In Italy, which imposed a nationwide lockdown to cope with the outbreak, lawmakers are still meeting in person, albeit only one day a week. Those in attendance must keep at least three feet away from one another.
These changes really only scratch the surface of the types of distance-friendly measures governments and legislatures could be adopting to further facilitate social distancing. Take voting, for example. In Britain, where lawmakers must physically walk through crowded lobbies to vote on legislation, Parliament could instead adopt ballot or electronic voting. “We already have a procedure, which is called ‘deferred division,’ where [members of Parliament] vote on paper,” Hannah White, the deputy director of the London-based Institute for Government think tank, told me. The easiest solution would be to simply “extend that to all votes.”
When it comes to limiting in-person meetings, another option for governments and legislatures is to simply move them online. The European Union announced its plan to replace the bloc’s customary summits in Brussels with videoconferences (though it remains unclear whether such meetings will be considered formal meetings, in which decisions can be made). Leaders of the Group of Seven countries adopted videoconferencing this week to discuss their response to the pandemic.
Perhaps the most significant changes have come in Canada, where lawmakers voted last week to suspend Parliament until at least next month. In the meantime, Trudeau has effectively been governing from home, holding cabinet meetings via teleconference and hosting press briefings in his garden.
It’s understandable why governments might be reluctant to fundamentally alter the way their democracies function. During this moment of uncertainty, people expect the government to maintain a degree of continuity. Such was the argument that Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, gave to justify Parliament remaining open in spite of the outbreak. “The ability to hold the government to account and to legislate are as vital in a time of emergency as in normal times,” he recently told the House of Commons. If Westminster didn’t shut down during two world wars, one argument goes, why should it shut down now?
But there is a counterpoint to be made: Instances of lawmakers contracting the coronavirus are proliferating. With social-distancing measures expected to last for weeks or months (or, by some estimates, more than a year), there is no better time than now to begin adapting the way our democracies function to this new reality. Without a willingness to shape them to this new normal, there may not be a government left to function at all.
“If they don’t [adapt], it’s just a matter of math,” White said. Should it continue to spread, “there are just not going to be enough people left to carry on the business of Parliament credibly.”