The Rise of the COVID Dictatorships
Around the world, emergency powers are chipping away at democracy—sometimes with public support.
As the pandemic’s death toll rose throughout the spring, many countries took aggressive measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Governments instituted national emergencies and travel bans, and prohibited large gatherings. Such responses, however necessary they may have been from a health perspective, have allowed politicians to undermine democracy and human rights. The pandemic has been used to justify surveillance policies and bypass checks and balances, some of which have been met with approval from a public rallying around the flag. Yet power grabs have also provoked resistance in the United States, Israel, Poland, Hungary, and China—and the question is how long the rally-around-the-flag effect will mitigate the anger.
In the United States, U.S. President Donald Trump named the pandemic as a reason for increasing border restrictions and limiting asylum claims. In March, the United States paused refugee resettlement. The resettlement restarted at the end of July with reduced numbers. As of Sept. 18, only 10,192 refugees were resettled in fiscal year 2020 compared to 22,500 in fiscal year 2018. In addition, in July, Trump proposed blocking asylum seekers on public health grounds. As of Oct. 11, only 40 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, yet most Republicans (81 percent), more than half of Democrats (49 percent) and a majority of independents (62 percent) approve of temporary immigration restrictions to slow the pandemic’s spread.
Of course, the U.S. public has not proved willing to buy in to all of Trump’s supposedly pandemic-related policies. Over the summer, the president attempted to discredit and deter Black Lives Matter protestors on the basis that the gatherings would transmit COVID-19. That did not stop marchers in their efforts to raise awareness of over policing and inequality. Trump thereafter called protestors terrorists and rebuked New York City’s plan to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue as a “symbol of hate.” He sent federal agents to Portland, Oregon in response to protests and threatened to do the same for other cities. Yet the BLM protests have had a major impact, and now even 45 percent of Republicans acknowledge that Black people are treated differently in the United States. With Trump down in the polls ahead of next month’s presidential election, then, it appears that the rally-around-the-flag effect was outlasted by public anger.
In Israel, supporters rallied around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to deploy state intelligence-gathering instruments to track its population without consent. Pre-COVID, Netanyahu was likely on his way out of office. But the leader used the crisis to call for emergency powers and later pushed for a new bill to extend emergency regulations. The Knesset was suspended to prevent the opposition from meeting.
Two watchdog organizations have since petitioned the High Court against cellular surveillance of COVID patients, arguing that it violates civil rights. Demonstrators organized a car convoy protest over the Knesset shutdown. Thousands sent complaints to the Ministry of Justice against what they perceived as assault on privacy rights. In July, protestors took to the streets to demand Netanyahu’s resignation. Protests (ongoing since July) have been in the tens of thousands every weekend. In response to the continuing protests, Netanyahu’s government passed a law prohibiting mass protest during the country’s COIVD-19 lockdown. Netanyahu has held onto power since 2009, but the response to his COVID-19 polices may be the last straw.
In illiberal Hungary and Poland, Presidents Viktor Orban, and Andrzej Duda used emergency laws to consolidate power. Orban enacted “rule by decree,” enabling him to make laws with no checks. The press was further muzzled and protests banned, on the grounds of containing the pandemic. Duda used the pandemic to stop the political opposition from holding campaign events ahead of presidential elections in June and July, but continued to hold his own. Yet with Hungarians rallying around the government, Orban held a 74 percent approval rating in April—after declaring rule by decree—and the figure remained high (62 percent) even following severe restrictions on the press and civil society. Duda won re-election.
Further power grabs in Hungary and Poland have been slowed by resistant civil societies. After rule by decree ended in June, Hungarians took to the streets. When the government axed Index’s editor-in-chief—Index being the last major independent media outlet in Hungary—new protests erupted. A recent European Court of Justice ruling reempowered civil society by lifting outside funding restrictions, making room for continued progress by civic organizations. In Poland, after Duda demonized LGBTQI+ people during his campaign, activists gave “rainbow makeovers” to well-known statues in Warsaw. Thousands gathered to protest the activists’ arrests. Despite public gathering bans, feminists protested to stop Parliament from passing legislation that would have reduced abortion access and labeled sex-ed “pedophilia.”
China—although authoritarian—also sees regular government resistance, although collective actions is usually quickly squashed. In early 2020, doctors, citizen journalists, and activists were silenced for calling attention to President Xi Jinping’s government’s initial ineptitude in addressing COVID.
Now, with life in China nearly back to normal, citizens may be rallying around the government. Polling in mainland China indicates strong trust in the regime. At least in, Hong Kong, the dissent is clear. Protests were banned on the grounds of public health but resurged in May when changes made in the Hong Kong legislature lessened self-rule. New “national security” laws target pro-democracy protestors and were used to deny pro-democracy legislative candidates from running in slated September elections. Elections have been delayed for an entire year due to the pandemic. Hong Kongers continue to protest against the government despite the risks, which now include secret trials in mainland China.
The pandemic created opportunities for political leaders to strengthen their hold on power through emergency measures meant to control the spread of the virus. These powers come with fewer constraints than usual, and may be extended to outlast the crisis they were intended to manage.
Non-democratic states such as China have had ample justification for intensifying their repression of human rights and civil liberties. And even democratic countries such as Israel and the United States have used these emergencies as a cover for non-democratic actions. However, given the greater political freedoms embedded within democratic institutions—even in illiberal countries, such as Hungary—political leaders in democracies have met most resistance.
Anwar Mhajne is Assistant Professor at Stonehill College.