It would not be controversial to call COVID-19 an emergency, but the Hungarian government’s use of their emergency provision invoked because of the pandemic has been extremely controversial. The Hungarian parliament passed a law on March 30th that grants Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the ability to rule by decree until the COVID crisis is considered to be over, and makes the propagation of misinformation regarding the coronavirus a crime with mandated jail time. While all attention is on the pandemic and national emergency, the government introduced another bill which defines gender as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes.”

The concept of national emergency isn’t contained within the scope of COVID - Trump’s declaration of national emergency over the US-Mexico border, and climate activists’ arguments for a climate emergency declaration, are just a few of the more recent examples. Could world leaders who declare national emergencies have alternative agendas? What rights can the government ask people to sacrifice during a national emergency? And, most pressingly, can the ability to rule by decree, or access to far more wide-ranging executive power, be justified? NBN Opinion investigates.

Graphic by Melanie Lust

Shruti Rathnavel (Weinberg ‘23):

National emergencies are the end-of-quarter social media hiatus of democracy: when crisis strikes, the government gets down to business and popular will goes on the back burner. From the ecological crisis to fiscal budgets to global pandemics, the state of emergency turns important and urgent policy issues into problems of national security, centralizing and often militarizing control. In Indian political history, the Emergency (1975 - 1977) left a searing imprint on the country’s collective consciousness. Following war with Pakistan, the Indira Gandhi administration declared a state of emergency to deal with political unrest, which it classified as a national security threat, and used the power that came with it to crack down on media, arrest dissenters en masse, seize state control in states ruled by opposition parties, hold off general elections and even embark on a mass sterilization program to “[tame] the population threat,” according to Vox. This was an administration beloved by minorities that was known for nationalizing banks and major industries.

Whether in the name of a cause on the right or left, national emergencies cannot be justified. In the face of climate change and pandemics, emergencies will militarize change that should be systemic. Efforts on climate will favor technological security measures like geoengineering instead of engaging in more sustainable resource use and economic practices. Pandemic responses may, as in the case of Hungary, be made a part of an ideological attack, or may attempt to erode the boundaries between federal and state governance. And even democratically elected governments may ostracize or punish minorities if allowed to rule by decree.

Delaney Nelson (Medill ‘23):

Without a question, the overreach of federal power by the Hungarian government in the middle of the coronavirus crisis is scary. While a strong and cohesive response to the pandemic is important to a nation’s survival and overcoming this global health crisis, it seems Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used this time to pounce on a chance to claim more power for himself.  He has the power to rule by decree until the COVID crisis is over, but who’s to say when it’s over? Won’t we be seeing the lasting impacts on the economy and society for years to come? Thus, this ambiguity could give Orbán a great deal of power for essentially however long he deems necessary. This puts the freedoms of Hungarian citizens at risk, threatened by the chance that what started as a seizure of power becomes a dictatorship, even if it’s labeled differently.

On the contrary, we’ve seen a lack of federal aid to states in the US in response to the pandemic. While Orbán’s claim to power in Hungary is extreme and dangerous, it’s still essential that the federal government step in and help their country through this time of struggle. There’s a reason the United States isn’t a confederacy of states as it was under the Articles of Confederation; a weak national government meant the states were left without a unified form of national leadership in wake of crisis.

Yet now, even under the Constitution which strengthened the national government’s powers with the intent of providing more unity, the states are still left to fend for themselves. The federal government, namely the executive, should not only provide resources to states scrambling for PPE and tests, but should also provide a cohesive message and response to the virus. We’re seeing what happens when the federal government fails to provide unity: many states across the country begin to reopen and risk increased spread of the virus while hotspots are still on stay-at-home orders, their emergency rooms full. This isn’t to say that Donald Trump should gulp as much power as he can and rule like the Prime Minister of Hungary, but he should use the powers he has to lead the country in a unified response in the midst of a national emergency, rather than leaving the states to fend for themselves.

Graphic by Melanie Lust

Quan Pham (Medill ‘23):

The short answer is yes. However, the right answer is that it depends on a multitude of elements, including the legitimacy of the emergency, the relationship between a government and the people, and the available resources of the nation.

During an emergency, assuming the declaration for such is legitimate, then a government should be expected to act with the nation’s best interest in mind. I’m optimistically defining the government here as a central agency whose members, or at least the majority, represent ideas of the people of a country. In saying so, we can be assured that even if some members of a government were to be corrupted, the majority will still prevail in upholding the interest of the people.

However, this is running on the basis that a government is representative of its people. So, to make the matter more complicated, one must consider the makeup of a population. If a nation’s population is generally homogeneous, it is comparatively easier to represent that with a sample (the government) than a nation with more diverse groups of ethnicity. From this idea of representation, we can devise another variable to the equation: the level of trust between the government and the people.

If a population feels they have been represented, they certainly are more likely to have faith in the government. In turn, I believe this can create a trust the government has for its people to follow the law. For example, in Sweden, an ethnically homogeneous country, there have been laxed measures in response to the pandemic due to the government trusting the people (whether this proves effective, we’ll have to wait and see). In Vietnam, where I’m from, the government took swift measures to contain the virus early on, which has allowed us to slowly reopen the country. Perusing social media and talking with others, I am confident to say we have trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Subsequently, federal intervention seems appropriate for a global pandemic, rather than an invisible hand that may or may not put the interest of the few above all. Once that trust between the two entities exists, a sense of community is formed within a nation – something that I personally see lacking in the U.S.

Still, this positive outlook on the impact of declaring national emergencies and heightened federal powers is on the assumption that the government in question is competent and representational. Total agency over such qualities is rare, if not impossible, to find. Even then, as long as a government upholds the people’s interests, that shall be enough. For the sake of the question, my stance is that of national emergency being justifiable. Truthfully, we must examine answers to this question on a case-to-case basis, and not an absolute yes or no.

Jo Scaletty (SOC ‘23):

While it’s true that the United States has declared many national emergencies since the passing of the National Emergencies Act in 1976, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the frequency at which these “emergencies” are declared is concerning, and the amount of power over the nation that is to be bestowed onto one person is absolutely alarming. As a result of the National Emergencies Act, the President can access a plethora of resources without consulting the legislative body. Furthermore, there have been 60 “national emergencies” in less than 50 years, with many still active today. Any president’s willingness to maneuver past the limits on presidential authority should be met with skepticism at best. When a true national emergency arises, having a person of authority to help guide the nation is crucial. However, when a situation arises in which the use of the word “emergency” is questionable, the President’s actions may be more dangerous than helpful.

No person should be given unilateral control over the definition of an emergency – yet, in the United States, this has been the case for the last half century. This power comes with great responsibility, and President Trump has demonstrated, specifically through the “national emergency” declared on the United States-Mexico border, that political desires can easily come before national interests. A fail-safe against a government that seeks to move too quickly or partisanly is imperative. I propose that the National Emergencies Act be amended to allow 50% + 1 governors of states and territories to collectively block a national emergency declaration. That way, the states would have the power to block a potentially dangerous abuse of federal power, which may also lead to fewer “emergency” declarations.

Graphic by Melanie Lust