With much of the world on lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic has chipped away at individual liberties everywhere. In more places, however, it is also being used as an excuse to weaken democratic institutions and oversight—an authoritarian slide that could endure once the current health emergency subsides.
In Bolivia, the interim and unelected government has canceled presidential elections slated for May. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is moving ahead with legislation that would allow him to rule by decree and imprison people spreading “falsehoods.”
To authoritarian-minded politicians world-wide, the coronavirus emergency is turning into a godsend, said Kati Piri, a Hungarian-born Dutch member of the European Parliament.
“These people never let a good crisis to be wasted,” she said. “We have only been in this crisis for about 10 days, and we know that, unfortunately, this will last not weeks but perhaps many months. With an anxious public in already very polarized countries, anything can happen.”
Indeed, the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic—which just in the past two weeks killed several thousand people in Europe and in the U.S.—has already generated unprecedented restrictions on fundamental liberties in much of the West.
Following China’s apparently successful example in containing the virus through shutting down public life, Italy and then other European nations, as well as state and local governments in the U.S. in recent weeks banned citizens from leaving homes except for basic necessities. Countries such as South Korea and Israel have used intrusive surveillance and phone-tracking technology to find and isolate suspected coronavirus carriers. “End of Freedom,” went the banner headline in London’s Daily Telegraph when the U.K. became the latest European nation to go on lockdown earlier this week.
These restrictions, even if they lead to the postponement of elections in some countries, don’t by themselves alter nations’ democratic nature. The U.K., after all, remained a democracy through World War II even though its draconian wartime legislation was used to imprison suspected subversives without trial, said François Heisbourg, a former French national-security official and a scholar at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “In wartime, freedom goes down the tube, but democracy doesn’t go down the tube.”
The problem, of course, is that the coronavirus pandemic swept the world at a time when democracy was already under attack—both because of the rise of authoritarian politicians in nations from the Philippines to Turkey to Brazil, and because of China’s effort to present itself as an alternative model to the Western liberal order.
“We were already at the precipice. The fears and the anxieties were already there, and now you inject the virus on top of that,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based research institute. “We now find ourselves in a really dangerous place for maintaining a democratic future. I can see us coming out of the public-health crisis that we are currently in with many more people buying into the notion that authoritarian states are better equipped to deal with future crises.”
China’s propaganda apparatus has already launched an all-out effort at home and abroad to portray its ability to contain the virus as testament to the superiority of its party-state system—and is sending planeloads of medical supplies and doctors to virus-stricken European nations.