Since January, when the Chinese government adopted extreme confinement measures in Wuhan, the pandemic sparked the worldwide spread of a questionable war semantics. It also provided states, in particular existing authoritarian regimes, new justifications for exercising their monopoly on violence, declaring arbitrary measures, and conducting new forms of political coercion.
In the Philippines, Duterte authorized the execution of those who break quarantine rules. In Hungary, Orbán suspended what remained of the country’s democratic institutions (click here to find out more). In Poland, the Law and Justice Party struck against electoral laws in order to institute voting by mail and maintain the presidential elections scheduled for May. This maneuver in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis was identified by opponents as a coup. The State’s power of coercion has also been expanded in Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan (see here for a compilation). In India, COVID-19 interrupted political mobilizations against the new citizenship law and the protests against the community violence that has victimized Muslims in several Indian cities. Above all, it gave Modi new arguments for using force and restricting the freedom of the press. In Uganda, the Museveni regime used the pandemic to resume the persecution of the country’s LGBT population (here and here). Central America has been another flagrant site of abuses, with states of exception being installed in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. More recently, Ecuador has also suspended access to constitutional guarantees. Finally, we should also mention authoritarian contexts that are rarely talked about as it is the case of Middle East and, even more dramatically, Palestine (especially Gaza) or else Kashmir, territories that have been under states of exception for a long period prior to the epidemic. It should also be noted that even in contexts where there have been no major threats to democracy, the COVID-19 crisis is leading to the indiscriminate use of criminal law and increased abuses by actors in charge of state surveillance.
Furthermore, in addition to the populist and anti-democratic leaders who are using COVID-19 to expand their discretionary powers, it is vital to look at the dramatic cases of COVID-19 negationists, such as Trump, Boris Johnson, Lopez Obrador and Bolsonaro. In the name of protecting the economy (as well as employing other arguments), these leaders have delayed and attacked containment measures, putting the population of their countries at risk. Boris Johnson seems to have more consistently recognized the implications of the new epidemiological reality. Trump, after much back and forth, ended up yielding to quarantine enforcement rules, but continued to threaten to suspend them and exonerate Dr. Fauci who coordinates the U.S. health care system response. Bolsonaro, it should be said, has followed a darker route. Even after more than 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in Brazil, he continued irresponsibly interrogating the seriousness of the pandemic and, in order to keep his political base mobilized, invented and harassed enemies, such as his (now former) Minister of Health. On this path of insanity, Bolsonaro is accompanied by three other undisputed autocrats: Daniel Ortega and the dictators of Belarus and Turkmenistan. Furthermore, in the week of April 10th, after replacing the Minister of Health, the announcement has also been made that, from now on, the Brazilian armed forces will oversee the COVID 19 crisis management, a step signaling towards a more flagrant authoritarian turn in the response to the pandemic and Brazilian politics more widely speaking.
Considering this unmistakable wave of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, it is important to highlight successful responses to the pandemic that are not openly carrying waters to the mills of de-democratization, such as in Germany, Argentina, Barbados, South Korea, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Portugal and Taiwan. Although several other factors must be taken into account to better grasp the contours and effectiveness of policies adopted in these countries, it is not exactly trivial that they are predominantly governed by women. This evidence, however, should not lead us towards facile essentialized interpretations. Not all female leaders would conduct or are conducting effective and democratic responses to the pandemic. Suffice to think of what would have been the policies adopted by European or US female right-wing leaders, or else to look at Bolivia where an undeclared state of exception has been adopted by the country’s female interim president, known for having a Bible in hand when taking the post in November 2019.
Under the current circumstances, it is also inspiring to read and disseminate the recommendations made by the regional and international human rights systems, as well as by international HR organizations, strongly underlining that human rights cannot be violated by policies implemented in response to the pandemic, and that also reminds us that, in conditions of exceptionality, persons and groups that already experienced inequality and discrimination will be the first victims of state violence and discrimination.