Authoritarians Are Exploiting the Coronavirus. Democracies Must Not Follow Suit.

Democracies are far more effective at combating national crises, but that hasn’t stopped despots across the world from trying to tighten their grip.

A woman watches a live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the nation over the coronavirus outbreak.
A woman watches a live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the nation about the coronavirus pandemic in Moscow on April 2. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

The world is facing an unprecedented and dangerous crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of abating. The seemingly endless cascade of dire headlines has overwhelmed citizens globally, triggering inherent survival mechanisms and leading people to focus on the health and safety of those closest to us. Into the void created by this uncertainty—in which fear has often trumped reason—stride the world’s authoritarian leaders.

Despotic officials on both ends of the political spectrum have grown stronger since the outbreak of the pandemic as the world’s population clamors for quick, decisive leadership. It is thus unsurprising that over the past several weeks the world has witnessed an unmistakable authoritarian surge, in which leaders around the globe have manipulated the coronavirus threat to consolidate their own political power and to run roughshod over democracy and human rights. And despite the growing evidence that democracies—and in turn, democratic leaders—respond better to public health crises, there is a growing tolerance and troubling acceptance of anti-democratic responses.

Perhaps the most illustrative example to date is Hungary, where the country suddenly transformed an already struggling democracy into a full-blown dictatorship. Despite courageous protests from local human rights groups, the country’s parliament voted to give Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for as long as the crisis lasts. With both parliament and popular elections now effectively suspended, Orban faces few, if any, checks on his already outsized authority. Orban himself, of course, claims that the changes were necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but they go well beyond the successful measures already enacted in neighboring European countries.

Despotic officials on both ends of the political spectrum have grown stronger since the outbreak of the pandemic.

This latest, truly global assault on liberal democracy is especially dire because the avenues for organization, protest, and civic resistance—all key tactics in the activist’s toolkit—have already been curtailed (and in some cases criminalized) by the lockdown and quarantine measures.

Acts of civil disobedience in particular are now banned, replaced by a muzzled press and strictly imposed curfews. Making matters worse, established Western democracies—those that have inconsistently but importantly stood up for beleaguered citizens living under repressive rule—have done little to object because they, too, are undertaking similar actions to deal with the coronavirus at home.

To be sure, civil liberties around the world have already been severely weakened by sustained attacks over the past few years, but the pandemic provides ample opportunity to accelerate an evident trend toward authoritarianism.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

To date, attempts to manipulate the coronavirus threat for authoritarian ends have fallen into three broad categories.

First are the emboldened dictators, those leaders who were already leading characteristically authoritarian regimes but who are now free to further advance their anti-democratic machinations. In addition to Hungary, similar processes of authoritarian consolidation are underway in Russia and Rwanda. Russian President Vladimir Putin is seizing the opportunity to expand the Kremlin’s already formidable apparatus of state repression in the form of thousands of facial recognition cameras that will enable the police to identify and target people participating in street demonstrations long after the coronavirus inevitably recedes.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has carefully guided the country into a one-party dictatorship since taking power in 2000 and is now deploying security forces and soldiers across the country to enforce Africa’s first nationwide lockdown. Already, according to credible reports, several citizens have been shot dead for allegedly breaking curfew. Instances like these are depressingly common in a country where brave activists, journalists, and opposition leaders have been routinely killed with impunity—apparently by Kagame’s own security forces.

The second major category are the opportunistic autocrats, those oppressors who had already moved toward authoritarianism but were facing mounting domestic opposition and have since used the pandemic to violently stifle their activities. Uganda is a glaring example. President Yoweri Museveni—who has been in power over the course of six successive U.S. presidential administrations—moved to ban opposition rallies well before the country had confirmed a single case of coronavirus.The pandemic provides ample opportunity to accelerate an evident trend toward authoritarianism.

Museveni is concerned about the growing support for opposition candidates such as the popular musician-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine of the People Power movement, who has spearheaded his own pandemic response by educating Ugandans on how to combat the virus through popular music. A prominent People Power colleague, Member of Parliament Francis Zaake—already a frequent target of the Museveni regime—was arrested again last week and reportedly tortured, after being charged with attempted murder for ostensibly ignoring social distancing guidelines while handing out food to his constituents. Those close to Museveni are also sending out feelers to test whether they can postpone elections scheduled for next year.

Meanwhile, Guinea’s burgeoning strongman, President Alpha Condé, plowed forward with a highly controversial referendum and local elections on March 22, the results of which will allow him to further extend his 10-year rule, which has turned increasingly violent. Voter turnout was understandably low, and an internet shutdown compounded an already volatile environment. Nationwide opposition to Condé’s plans was repressed with excessive force, with dozens of Guineans losing their lives on the streets, including on the day of the referendum itself. Beyond the clear public health risks involved, election conditions were inauspicious, as election observers refused to participate or otherwise lend their stamp of legitimacy.

Finally, there is a third category: the clueless authoritarians who appear to have little understanding of the inherent threats to public health that the coronavirus poses, with likely disastrous consequences for their populations and global health writ large.

In Turkmenistan, for example, the country’s notoriously bizarre dictator, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has reportedly told government officials not to even utter the word “coronavirus,” most likely because he wanted to reduce as much as possible any public hysteria in order to appear strong and in control of the situation; he is even said to have offered local remedies to battle the virus from a book he supposedly wrote on medicinal plants.

This blanket denial of information endangers citizens, including those most at risk, and reinforces Berdimuhamedov’s authoritarian rule in a country that has ranked at the bottom of every conceivable human rights and democracy index over the past decade. Similarly, in repressive Madagascar, that country’s president last week launched a new herbal remedy that he claims can both prevent and cure the coronavirus—this, in a country that has a mere six ventilators for its estimated 27 million people.

And in Tanzania, President John Magufuli has refused to close crowded places of worship in the country, saying: “That’s where there is true healing. Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus.” Previously, the government had come under fire from the World Health Organization for mishandling and underreporting suspected Ebola cases. Likewise, in Burundi, the country’s ruling party has cited “God’s protection” for its low number of reported cases, and plans remain in place for a presidential election next month. Bars and restaurants in the country continue to bustle, as do its churches and mosques. Even the country’s soccer leagues remain in operation.

As these despots continue to extend their control, others will no doubt be encouraged to follow their lead, which not only marginalizes the few genuinely liberal democracies in the world but also further emboldens authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.

Governments that have traditionally stepped up—albeit inconsistently—to defend democracy worldwide are unable or unwilling to do so today. Western leaders currently seem to lack the bandwidth to engage in complex foreign-policy issues, and they also risk being punished by their electorates if they are not seen to be concentrating their efforts on the crisis at home.

Even if they did, many of these governments would struggle to find the moral high ground, having imposed their own highly restrictive lockdowns and, in the case of the United Kingdom, postponed local elections until 2021.

But democracy still matters—even in the face of a fast-moving crisis—because it is the most effective form of government for dealing with pandemics. A growing body of research shows that democratic practices, on the whole, benefit public health in the long term.

Governments that have traditionally stepped up—albeit inconsistently—to defend democracy worldwide are unable or unwilling to do so today.

Put simply, identifying and responding to public health concerns effectively requires the free flow of information, public accountability, and open dialogue between citizens and their elected leaders, as well as cooperation among global counterparts. That these important relationships and processes are strained at best, or altogether absent, in nondemocratic countries means that these countries are much less likely to respond in a timely and effective manner, costing lives and causing untold suffering in the process.

And notwithstanding the rightful criticisms of the slipshod responses by the United Kingdom and United States in particular, the available data has long suggested that democratic governments are best positioned to manage and mitigate emerging crises. That’s because of the foundational qualities that their nondemocratic counterparts lack—namely their free and robust press, their need to respond to public opinion to win elections, and their greater transparency.

It is indeed little wonder that the leaders receiving the highest grades for their coronavirus responses in New Zealand, Iceland, and Norway represent three of the top-performing democracies in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. (Perhaps uncoincidentally, all of these leaders also happen to be women.)

Indeed, it was sharp public criticism and a dogged press that forced the U.K. government to alter its initial laissez-faire coronavirus response strategy. By their very nature, the same cannot be true in authoritarian states, where dissent and criticism are criminalized and the government’s strategy—regardless of how ineffective it may be—is allowed to go unchallenged. The occasional anti-democratic regime may achieve laudable results, but many more underperform badly, costing innumerable lives in the process, because there are no mechanisms to self-correct when things inevitably go awry.

The prevailing assumption that there is a tension between liberal democratic values and effective, strong responses to national crises—whether public health-related or otherwise—is profoundly dangerous, and it is an enduring myth that has no basis in reality.

The assumption that there is a tension between liberal democratic values and strong, effective responses to public health crises is profoundly dangerous.

It is only in democracies that the public can ensure that their leaders ultimately do the right thing and design policy solutions that best manage and mitigate crises for the benefit of their own populations and the world. COVID-19, like all infectious diseases, does not respect national boundaries, and mistakes in one country can and will inevitably affect others.

Resisting authoritarianism is no easy task, especially in today’s panicked world. But democratic leaders around the globe need to find solutions to the pandemic that respect and maintain their commitment to protecting civil liberties and political rights. In so doing, they must resist the temptation to adopt more authoritarian measures at home and push back, forcefully, against the building repressive winds abroad.

Democrats today can successfully fight the pandemic head-on while also protecting basic human rights—these tasks are not mutually exclusive, as the world’s authoritarians would like people to believe. Indeed, they are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and the long-term health of the world’s inhabitants depends on it.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election. Twitter: @Fromagehomme

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