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Jul 20, 2021

In Episode 8 of Series 6 Todd is in conversation with Arlene Tickner and David Owen about the impact of Covid-19 on democracy and migration. Arlene is a Professor of International Relations in the School of Political Science, Government and International Relations at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia. David is a Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at Southampton University.


Todd starts by asking David about the relationship between democracy and human rights. David says that human rights and democracy are mutually entwined. They secure our basic standing, interest and membership in a democracy, whilst being a part of a democracy is meant to ensure those rights are available to us. 

Todd expands on David’s explanation and asks him about how Covid-19 has compromised the ideals of democracy and the protection of human rights. David points to three things that have questioned every day ideas of democracy:

  • How within states different people (e.g. permanent/temporary residents/asylum seekers and refugees) are treated unequally
  • The depth of global inequalities around health (e.g., Africa has just 3000 intensive care beds on the whole continent)
  • Between and within states we are radically interdependent (poverty/lack of education in other parts of the world are threats to us all

Todd asks Arlene about how she sees things from her base and perspective in Colombia.  She outlines the political backdrop across Latin America where she says people are increasingly questioning democracy as the best form of government because of its failings. The pandemic has underscored different forms of inequality and is crucial in understanding growing forms of social protest in the region. She points to two specific issues that underscore the shortcomings of the democracies in this part of the world:

  • Latin America is the worst affected region accounting for 35% of all deaths from Covid-19 despite representing only 8% of the global population (Colombia is top of the global list for deaths)
  • Vaccination programme is extremely slow (e.g. only just beginning in Paraguay)

Todd comments that there is something of a myopia towards this part of the world and asks Arlene to talk specifically about recent protests in Colombia itself.

Arlene says the country has undergone a number of protests since peace accords were signed a few years ago which was to be expected. But she adds the more recent protests were related to tax reforms -proposed in the middle of the pandemic. This caused considerable discontent among the middle classes. Protests were also linked to ineffective implementation of the peace accords, discontent around access to education for young people, frustration over the pandemic and a deteriorated health infrastructure and pensions. Excessive police force used to deal with protestors has worsened the situation and invitations for dialogue have been empty offers. 


Todd mentions recent protests in the UK (Black Lives Matter, violence against women, anti lockdown, European Football Cup final violence and racism) and asks David for his take. He says there is a question of how to balance public health security with the right to protest (a fundamental human right). A more worrying issue for democracy in the UK he says is a lesson learned from Trump America around using culture as a way of focusing and intensifying social division (something he believes Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have engaged in in a bid to silence/counter the traditional left). 

He adds culture is becoming something of a key battleground for the kind of democracy people want (relatively thin as in Turkey/India/Russia with a strong executive) or a more egalitarian form of democracy with genuine opportunities to self-govern and participate. 

Todd picks up on David’s mention of ‘wokeism’ and points out that it is something that still isn’t well understood in the UK. He goes on to ask David about the lifting of restrictions in the UK despite rising cases of Covid. David refers to the England football team as a representation of the conflicted visions around what Britain/England should look like. One is a diverse and multicultural ‘bringing people together’ vision - the other is focused on division, generating division and ruling through division. Todd agrees.


The discussion moves to migrants and migration. Todd asks Arlene about the situation in Venezuela which has been highly unstable since the 1990s and where many people have decided to leave the country and flee to Colombia.

Arlene says there is both a political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela (exacerbated unintentionally she says by the US) which has led to some 2 million Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia. LA countries more widely have been unable to agree on a strategy to deal with this, but the Colombian President has afforded temporary protection status to all those migrants who arrived before January 2021. This has created a huge strain on Colombia’s fiscal capabilities. Arlene believes this to be part of the President’s ambitions to force the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro out of power.

Todd also asks about widespread social protests in Cuba and Arlene says these protests were a surprise to many, but that essentially were a response to growing discontent with the handling of the pandemic and certain human rights. She adds sanctions put in place by Donald Trump when he was US president have hit the Cuban economy hard. 


Todd asks David and Arlene to reflect on what the future of democracy holds. David says that in Europe the massive visibility of the inequalities discussed may be a spur for a re-engagement of social democracy and taking inequality seriously. He mentions Portugal as leading the way in temporarily giving some migrants the same rights to healthcare as its citizens. The ways in which some states have handled the pandemic will have implications for how politics in those states develops post/declining-pandemic.

Arlene says there are few success stories from the region, but has simply placed in sharp relief how those democracies are failing. Saying that she does think Uruguay and Chile provide some sources of hope. She says events around the pandemic have raised questions for her around ‘who is the human’ in human rights and so she feels both pessimistic and hopeful about the future of democracy.