As the world grappled with the onset of the novel coronavirus earlier this year, policymakers in countries across the world had to quickly make a decision. Neither option was particularly appealing: a sharp reduction of economic and social activity in order to prioritize saving lives, or inaction, letting the virus run its course and leading to a high death toll. The vast majority of countries around the world have chosen the first. And as the number of cases has flattened over the last few months, this approach seems to have been the correct one. But as the need for an extension of quarantine into the summer or beyond seems likelier, the new normal will certainly include unanticipated trade-offs.
The social distancing measures that have cut the disease’s spread thus far are a threat to the liberal democratic norms of the developed world. Control of citizens is, in short, the key to controlling the disease. Soldiers march in the streets of Paris, while digital bracelets track recent travelers in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, countries where self-quarantine enforcement has been lax have seen their infection rates skyrocket.
The central irony of the crisis may be that the very methods that liberal democracies are currently using to effectively fight the virus are the same tactics that authoritarian leaders use to dominate their people. While the world is not sinking into authoritarianism, a post-quarantine world could be less democratic than its previous iteration; the tools that have been temporarily deployed in the fight against a once-in-a-lifetime disease may become permanent. Worse, the outlook for the human rights condition in authoritarian regimes is even bleaker. Despots across the globe have seized the opportunity to further crack down on dissidents in the name of public safety, while contact tracing may provide another way to receive and analyze civilian movements if implemented carelessly.
At a time when the world is willing to accept individual sacrifice for the common good, leaving citizens everywhere vulnerable, recognizing these threats is imperative. Many measures that have been taken, and many of those that will be taken, are temporary and necessary to fight the virus. Others are neither.
Digital Big Brother
Governments around the world have the tools to better fight the pandemic as compared to others in the past, mostly due to the advent of technology that can successfully track and prevent the spread of the disease. Most citizens in the world are connected digitally, with at least a cell phone, meaning that location data can precisely map where citizens go and with whom they interact. Google recently released aggregate COVID-19 movement data from users who have opted in to location history, allowing governments to better target locations where individuals are more likely to come into close contact with each other. However, the company has kept their reports at a high level and removed all personally identifiable data, ruling out the possibility of micro-level contact tracing.
In South Korea, the government has begun to track the movements of individuals who have tested positive, displaying their location data on a publicly accessible website without names. In line with cultural preferences for the collective, many other Asian governments have followed South Korea’s lead. The Singaporean government, for example, has created a website that names the age, gender, and occupation of all its coronavirus patients.
Perhaps more troubling is the case of China, which has begun its recovery process. A new health code system assigns individuals a color—green, yellow, or red—based on their risk of carrying the virus. Those who are assigned yellow are required to self-quarantine, while those who receive red have their location sent to the police immediately. In almost all public places, including the subway, markets, and workplaces, showing a green code is a prerequisite to entry. Workers stand outside barriers where citizens are subsequently screened.
But the underlying mechanisms of the app, which has been deployed in 200 cities and is being rolled out nationally, are still unknown to the public. Ant Financial, a sister company of the e-commerce corporation Alibaba, developed the app in Hangzhou with the support of the local government and police. The degree of collaboration between the Chinese tech giant and the Chinese Communist Party is unprecedented. Although Ant Financial says that all those involved with the data adhere to security and privacy regulation, each time a user scans the app, their location is sent to the app’s servers, which are controlled by the central government. Over time, the usage of the app could lead to highly specific location data linked to individual citizens.
History casts doubt on claims that usage of the app is just a temporary measure against the pandemic. According to Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch affiliate, China often uses major events “to introduce new monitoring tools that outlast their original purpose.” It is therefore imperative that citizens and watchdogs around the world are vigilant about the use of data and ensuring that civil liberties are protected. Likewise Jeong Eun-keong, director of the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that “It is true that public interests tend to be emphasized more than human rights of individuals when dealing with diseases that can infect others.”
Emergency Power Grab
A failure to act in a clear emergency results in long-term regime instability; citizens want public health knowledge and competency in the face of a deadly disease. Yet under these circumstances, leaders have used the public health emergency as an opportunity to double down on their own power.
Chief among the restrictions presented by the novel coronavirus is a ban on public gatherings. In many countries, governments enforce this decree enforced through technology or crowd control methods. Either the military patrols the streets, fining those who are outside, or public safety officials fly drones above the streets, shouting warnings via loudspeakers urging citizens to disperse.
The enforcement of public health regulation also provides a convenient pause in political protest. In Algeria, the government has taken the opportunity to block protests that have been underway for the last year. The opposition to Indian Prime Minsiter Modi’s anti-Muslim CAA bill has also taken a backseat amid the public health crisis. Whether or not these restrictions will last just for the duration of the emergency or not is yet to be seen.
Elections have also been postponed in both liberal and illiberal countries, occasionally for political ends. Citing the public health risk of congregating in public, Britain has postponed local elections for a year. Across the Atlantic, the US Democratic Party has postponed 16 primaries. And the Polish ruling Law and Justice party insisted on the safety of holding presidential elections in May by advocating for a hybrid voting model; the election would naturally favor incumbent President Andrzej Duda, a close ally of the populist party. Only after the governing coalition decided to compromise was the election postponed.
Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, rulers around the world have been granted emergency powers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has secured a legal mandate to rule by decree without any type of parliamentary oversight—named the “Draft Law on Protecting Against Coronavirus.” The bill’s vast powers included the right to punish anyone who spread “distorted truths” or broke quarantine orders. Although the act has a 90-day sunset clause, Orbán has already used the powers to make it illegal for transgender individuals to alter their birth records, hardly a public health priority.
There are many other instances of leaders who have capitalized on the timing of COVID-19. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, has suspended courts as he faces corruption charges. And when a parliamentary ally cited the crisis as the grounds for refusing a vote on the Knesset speaker, a move that would oust Netanyahu, the Israeli Supreme Court said the postponement would “undermine the foundations of the democratic process.”
In many countries, the response to COVID-19 has also turned into a war on information. The virus itself is hard to understand; scientific texts are hard to read. Since the first days of the pandemic, many media outlets downplayed the extent to which the virus would alter daily life. State propaganda outlets claimed that entire populations were immune from the virus, as in Turkey, while media in the West downplayed the virus and pinned it on political opponents. The earliest messages still resonate today.
Almost all governments have an incentive to make the virus seem like less of an issue, as an adequate response—or at least the impression of it—confers trust and legitimacy. But malicious actors have gone to extreme means in order to downplay the risk. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime has jailed journalists who have questioned the government’s efficacy and detained individual citizens on the grounds of spreading “provocative news.” The policy is the latest step in a horrifying practice from before the pandemic: since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, at least 180 media outlets have been shut down in the country. And in the Philippines, which has only seen hundreds of reported cases in a population of over 110 million, President Rodrigo Duterte has obtained special emergency powers to manage the country during the era of COVID-19, though his powers extend only to the medical and public transport sectors. Nevertheless, dissidents are afraid that they might be targeted under a clause that allows penalization of those who spread “fake news.”
But the reality is that a different kind of fake news is taking hold across the world, this type spread by autocratic regimes and those who desire them. Dictators and populists continue their subversion of democracy through concerted efforts to spread disinformation and amplify strife in domestic and international contexts. The European Union’s External Action Service found that Russia has started a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West in order to make the impacts of COVID-19 more severe and generate panic. China, too, has kicked off a disinformation campaign. On his official account, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian declared that the “US army brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” The current political atmosphere around the world makes us all the more vulnerable to fake information: as World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
In a time when accurate, scientific information is vital to the well-being of populations around the world, silencing independent media and dissidents is counterproductive. Since the pandemic has hit, the International Press Institute has reported hundreds of violations of media freedom. Radical transparency in communication should be the norm; part of the success of countries like Taiwan and Canada stems from their clear communication about government efforts.
Becoming Healthy Again
The dangers posed by authoritarianism and authoritarian tendencies during the COVID-19 pandemic are clear. One thing is certain: the world that emerges from quarantine will be different than the one we knew. The tools that have been touted as solutions to the pandemic may become weapons if put in the wrong hands, or if democratic governments do not show self-restraint.
It is now paramount for citizens around the world to care not only about the health of the individuals around them, but the health of their government institutions as well. A two-pronged approach to the pandemic revolves around effective response while guaranteeing that civil rights and liberties remain intact. Certain countries have demonstrated considerable vigilance in their response. It is imperative that others around the world follow suit.