A Dangerous Side Effect: The Infectious Spread Of Authoritarianism In A Post-COVID World

Nations around the world have been grappling with the COVID-19 for months, with over 185 infected countries, 2.38 million infections, and 165,000 deaths at the time of writing. The OWP sends out its condolences to those who have lost friends and family members. But while it is clear from the WHO’s statistics which countries have had more success at combating the virus (based on population density, access to necessary medical equipment, and a host of other factors), some world leaders are using the opportunity of the crisis to expand their executive power.

Citizens around the world are relying on their respective national executive and legislative bodies to enact meaningful policy that could save lives. It is also up to the UN, the World Bank, and the WHO to make sure that oppressive leaders are not taking advantage of humanitarian aid that belongs to those who are suffering. The rise of authoritarianism, especially in countries that were already toeing the line between democracy and dictatorship (like Hungary), is a long-term danger for individual rights and freedoms, and must be addressed. 

In a time of crisis, authoritarianism can seem to have its upsides. Soon after the detection and initial spread of the virus in the Wuhan province, China quickly and effectively put the province under full lockdown. This included confining residents to their homes, restricting travel in and out of the state, and widespread testing as China began easing some of the previous measures it had put in place. In a report released late last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) even congratulated China on a “unique and unprecedented public health response [that] reversed the escalating cases.” 

However, China’s relative success at combating the virus comes at a cost. Along with the initial deception over the spread of the virus and underreporting of national deaths, China has expelled all American journalists in order to further control of the flow of information. In a joint letter, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal condemned the action as one that undermines the “urgent importance of both probing, accurate, on-the-ground reporting from the centres of the pandemic and of sharing the information, insights and lessons that reporting reveals as widely as possible.”

Additionally, infectious disease experts have called for transparency from China in order to better prepare countries which are in the earlier stages of controlling the virus. “The countries now facing their first wave [of infections] need to know this,” says Gabriel Leung, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Hong Kong. Indeed, the restriction of free speech and communication has limited Chinese scientists’ ability to share information that could be vital in the fight against COVID-19.

Last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán consolidated power as the parliament (which is controlled by the Prime Minister’s party) voted in favour of a bill to let him rule by decree – giving him the power to bypass any law the assembly has made, along with a host of other measures, including the ability to jail journalists for spreading disinformation. While this may be a prime example of authoritarianism on rise, the only action the EU took was to indirectly condemn Hungary through a written statement that “did not even mention the country by name,” according to VICE News, leading Hungary to sign the measure in what was called a “masterclass in political trolling.” Xenophobia towards Chinese and Asian immigrants has also increased worldwide, a potential scapegoat for leaders to target as they look to divert attention from their own failures in addressing the virus. 

President Duterte of the Philippines has also been granted emergency powers, including greater control over the media and private hospitals. When addressing those who were harassing hospital workers, he threatened to shoot anyone who stokes “chaos,” a tactic similar to that of the earlier crackdown on the Philippines’ large network of illegal drug distributors. 

International bodies and political unions (namely the United Nations and the European Union) need to be cognizant of the many behind-the-scenes moves that world leaders are making to increase their power, and be ready to fight back against it. While now may not be the time for harsh economic sanctions, the most important factor is making sure that all nations worldwide have the proper medical supplies necessary to combat the virus. Minimizing the spread of the virus, accurately reporting deaths, and sharing viral research is also necessary to lessen the effects of the global pandemic. COVID-19 is the world’s primary concern right now (and for good reason), leading news outlets worldwide to continually report on a virus that continues to claim thousands of lives across the globe. 

Because of this, we need to be holding governments accountable, especially ones with mixed records on handling crises. Even a country as well-stocked as the United States has had trouble addressing the pandemic, in part due to political skirmishes and inaction, something that has undoubtedly cost lives. Now, more than ever, is it important for a free press to be able to report on governments worldwide, directing our attention to where we are failing, and highlighting abuses of power that occur behind closed doors. The only way to drive coronavirus into remission before a vaccine is developed is for governments to enforce isolation measures, provide widespread testing, support to medical services, and transparency when discussing the effects of the virus and the best way forward.

Cameron Edgington
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