Opinion: The latest tragic casualty of the coronavirus outbreak is democracy

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York
An Amazon worker striking in Staten Island during the coronavirus outbreak.
REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

A very long three weeks ago, I wrote that while social distancing is necessary right now, it will damage the communal social life essential to democracy. It appears that I gravely understated matters.

Democracy, small business, and worker rights are under extreme threat right now, and we have lost most of the tools traditionally used to fix the problems.

On Monday, March 30, Hungary’s parliament voted to give prime minister Viktor Orbán dictatorial powers, using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse. Hungary had been heading in that direction for a while, but now there is rule by Orbán’s decree, an end to free speech, and a state of emergency with no scheduled elections. Hungary is now the first dictatorship in the history of the European Union.

Also on Monday, an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island walked out to demand better protections for workers there, after reports of multiple employees at that warehouse testing positive for coronavirus last week. That afternoon, Amazon fired the worker who organized the brief strike.

I’d say there are three main strategies groups of people use to non-violently assert their rights: strikes, elections, and protest marches. All three are difficult or impossible now.

Strikes are difficult at the moment. Right now, it would be wrong for health care workers to go on strike, though their lives are at-risk. Many of us have discovered that our jobs are “non-essential.” Those who still have remote, non-essential jobs are desperate not to jeopardize them. Underpaid workers in essential jobs are under heavy pressure to not leave them except for health reasons. Even then, many low-income workers are working sick, which might spread to the rest of us and further bog down our embattled healthcare system.

New York’s presidential primary has been delayed to match the rest of the primaries in June, but we don’t know we’ll be capable of holding an election even then. The states which went ahead with elections in the last few weeks appear to have spread the virus further. Be glad we don’t have touch screen voting machines here in New York, as many states do. While we hopefully still will have elections in November, we don’t have any sense right now of what seven months from now looks like.

Frankly, I never saw the point of protest marches — unless one is willing to stay somewhere until the hated government is gone, which is not the American way — but for the first time in years, no one is even proposing them.

And journalism, freedom’s guard dog, is also under attack, both from crashing revenues and people who believe truth is whatever they want it to be.

I don’t have any solutions, besides supporting your local news organization, but when I think of some I’ll write them in this column.

Nick Rizzo is a Democratic District Leader representing the 50th Assembly District and a political consultant who lives in Greenpoint. Follow him on Twitter @NickRizzo.