Legislatures are central to modern democratic politics, holding governments to account and scrutinising legislation in order to generate more effective public policy. Yet during moments of crisis, legislatures are often bypassed as presidents and prime ministers prioritise a rapid response. The concern that legislatures will be marginalised, with greater power concentrated in the hands of the executive, has been particularly significant during COVID-19, when eighty countries have witnessed democratic backsliding. The implications of this for the quality of health policy are particularly significant given the virus, which has already led to the loss of two million lives worldwide, has been met with idiosyncratic and at times populist responses in some countries – such as Brazil, Madagascar, Tanzania and the United States – where governments failed to follow scientific advice.
There are good reasons to worry that the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic may have been particularly deleterious to horizontal accountability, as social distancing requirements make it harder for legislatures to sit. Conversely, unlike many other crises, the challenges posed by COVID-19 have endured for months, creating greater time for legislative scrutiny. Moreover, unlike certain aspects of foreign and security policy, healthcare is an area over which parliaments typically have considerable influence. It is therefore unclear exactly how detrimental the pandemic has been to accountability. Given that prior research suggests that greater legislative engagement results in a more considered and effective policy, this raises a number of questions that are important for both the safeguarding of democratic governance and the potential for an effective and inclusive COVID-19 response:
- What role have legislatures played in responding to COVID-19, particularly in scrutinising governments’ actions to address the crisis?
- To what extent is this explained by the level of democracy and legislative effectiveness prior to COVID-19, as opposed to COVID-19 specific effects?
- What have been the main enablers and barriers to effective legislative scrutiny?
- Which legislative actors have been involved in responding to COVID-19 and what kinds of legislative leadership have been the most effective?