Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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28 Apr 2020 : Pandemic Authoritarianism

There is an evident political tension being played out in many countries around the issue of COVID and authoritarianism. In fact, authoritarianism and COVID was the focus of one of the earliest debates that surfaced around China’s response to Wuhan and Hubei outbreaks in January. Many were scathing at the draconian measures instituted there and the abuse of human rights of the Hubei population, with a counterpoint commentary stressing that the authoritarian nature of the regime was an essential part of that countries successful flattening of the curve. It was exactly this overweening power and fear of the CCP state that led officials in Hubei to bury initial warnings about a novel virus presenting in Wuhan in December. Fear of authoritarian powers and fear of perceptions of local political failure buried information on a new infectious disease. Nonetheless, the absolute authority of the CCP and Xi has been viewed as the magic bullet by some in terms of it offering the power to stop COVID in its tracks.

On the other hand, we see in the USA and other countries the routine conflation of public health measures with authoritarianism and the erosion of civil liberties. The placards of the open-up protesters in many US state capitols are full of claims that basic rights are being infringed upon by lockdown measures. The reality is pandemic measures, emergency laws and public health strategies must in some ways encroach on rights, albeit with the goal of infectious disease control and wider social protection. Surveillance, quarantine, isolation, and mandatory measures prohibiting movement or public congregation are viewed with suspicion. Coupled with this, the populations of some countries have been encouraged to report on fellow citizens for breaking the rules, in a form of Orwellian community policing. For sure, many countries have gone too far in policing coronavirus laws, and human rights have suffered. The need to balance public health with human rights is a routine warning of global health lawyers, but it is rarely evident in policies in these critical times. However, it is fairly transparent that in the USA the issue of civil liberties is being weaponised by Trump and his supporters, to assist in the various power struggles the POTUS has started with those that oppose or criticise him.

The Jakarta Post yesterday carries an article voicing concern over the way in which Indonesia might be staggering toward autocracy and authoritarianism. It is not just the poor response to that countries outbreak that has mobilised anti-government sentiment and criticism, but also diverse issues around land rights, corporate control of the economy, and poverty. The article alerts readers to rising abuses of power by the Indonesian government and police, the escalating clamping down on critics and activists. In Indonesia, those arrested are mainly on the left, and are being accused of fomenting dissent, encouraging looting and so on. Amnesty points to the evident goal of suppressing of criticism of Widodo in particular, who has handled the crisis very badly. In Brazil there is also turmoil and ministerial resignations regarding Bolsonaro exercising increasingly heavy-handed presidential power over ministries and state governors, his own handling of the crisis dramatically criminal. At the end of last week, he addressed a crowd of supporters baying for a military coup, with much of the legal and state apparatus already in place for a new junta in that country.

In this vein, The Economist carried a genuinely alarming piece this week on how the virus is interacting with authoritarianism, and particularly strong-men leaders who are using the crisis to seize more power. The most obvious example is Orban in Hungary, with parliament ceding him total authority without time limits. And this is an EU member state. Serbia’s leader now has much the same total power under new ‘coronavirus laws’, as has the leader of Togo, and the Cambodian ruling party. In India, the BJP is using the virus as part of its abusive campaign against its own Muslim population, with armed thugs beating (and even killing) Muslims in the streets, watched by the police in some cases, a community accused of having spread the virus to the no doubt otherwise healthy majority population.

In Turkey, journalists have been accused of spreading misinformation about COVID and arrested. This is another strong-man led government where the pandemic has interacted with a failing economy, a poor response to controlling the spread of infection, leading to yet more authoritarianism. Spain has used the crisis to re-centralize power, especially away from semi-autonomous regions. In the UK, the government has a secret advisory committee on COVID, suspended parliament, and is waging a low-level war against and increasingly hostile press. The Sunday Times has been banned this week from asking questions at daily briefings, no doubt after its coverage this week focused on the missing 38 days that led to the car crash of fatalities still unfolding, drawing Johnson’s absence from six successive COBRA meetings as the crisis was being glibly dismissed. One report from the Observer claims that Downing Street lobbied to get that paper to rewrite a headline that declared public trust in the government was falling as a result of its handling of the crisis.

And returning to the US, we must remember Trump stating that he had ‘total authority’ among the mumblings in last night’s briefing with business about a potential delay to November’s elections. He is already waging open war with many state governors. It all looks very ugly. The ostensible issue is still opening-up, even though much of this is about his own visions of his authority both now and in the next term. One state that is planning to open up is Iowa, and it is worth citing some statistics that underline how absurd and dangerous this has all become. Three metropolitan areas in Iowa are in the top ten for new cases of COVID in the USA. This week so far, Sioux City recorded a 148% jump in new cases (with 878 new cases), Waterloo a 35% rise (713 new cases), and Des Moines a 19% rise. New cases amongst these are doubling every six days in Des Moines and doubled in one day in Sioux city. In just one day.

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