The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Daily 202: Human rights groups sound alarm over government crackdowns during coronavirus

with James Hohmann

SAN SALVADOR – The images coming out of El Salvador are ghastly. Hundreds of jailed gang members, stripped to their shorts, were jammed together, legs over legs, on prison floors – with few of them wearing protective face masks – while officers searched their cells. The photographs look like they might have been smuggled out or leaked by a whistleblower. But they weren’t: The president and his ministry of defense proudly shared them on Twitter, multiple times, to show the Salvadoran people how they are stepping up to fight crime after a particularly deadly weekend that left at least 60 dead. 

Before this past weekend, El Salvador had been recording an average of 3.5 killings a day, putting 2020 on track to be its least violent year in decades, according to Salvadoran news outlet El Faro. But a wave of deadly violence hit this small Central American nation amid a pandemic that already has most people locked down at home. President Nayib Bukele, a 38-year-old populist elected last year, immediately attributed the killings to gangs, including the notorious MS-13, and ordered a national state of emergency, authorizing the police and military to use “lethal force” against members of gangs.

More than 80 countries have invoked the novel coronavirus to declare states of emergency, according to the United Nations, and there are growing reports of human rights abuses around the globe, from South Africa to Sri Lanka, Kenya, the Philippines and Jordan.

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, called on countries Monday to refrain from violating fundamental rights “under the guise" of the emergency. “We have seen many States adopt justifiable, reasonable and time-limited measures. But there have also been deeply worrying cases where Governments appear to be using COVID-19 as a cover for human rights violations, further restricting fundamental freedoms and civic space, and undermining the rule of law,” Bachelet said in a statement.

Here in El Salvador, the president says gangs are the ones taking advantage of the contagion to assert control over civilians. He’s ordering authorities to crack down on them in ways not previously seen during healthy times. His orders, and the accompanying images he shared so gleefully, prompted condemnation from human rights advocates, who fear El Salvador is already at risk of sliding toward autocracy and that Bukele will use the pandemic as a pretext.

“Without a firm, clear reaction from outside El Salvador, particularly from Washington, I don’t think it’s unreasonable, given his record, to predict that he will take even more dramatic steps to undermine democracy in El Salvador,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. “My general concern is the fact that the coronavirus is used by leaders in this region and other regions of the world to concentrate power.”

There is no question that El Salvador’s gangs are responsible for the torture and organized murder of civilians, as well as for extortion in poor neighborhoods. Their organized killing collectively drives thousands of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans out of their countries toward the United States every year. The weekend’s homicides far outnumbered the coronavirus deaths reported in the country – eight, so far, after seven weeks of a mandatory national quarantine. With 345 reported cases, El Salvador is, by official counts, the third least-infected country in Central America, and among the least infected places in Latin America.

Governments in El Salvador have long been faulted for not meeting their obligations to provide a basic level of security for the population by allowing organized crime to thrive. But to effectively go after the gangs, Vivanco argued in an interview, the country needs the rule of law and a stronger judicial system than it currently has. The problem with the president’s approach, he explained, is that he’s attributing all the killings to gangs, punishing their members who are already in jail without a full investigation or due process.

Bukele vigorously defended his state of emergency. On Tuesday night, the president unironically retweeted messages with the sarcastic hashtag “Que bonita dictadura.” That translates to: “What a beautiful dictatorship.”

Other countries have enforced strict lockdown measures by arresting and detaining tens of thousands of people. The Philippines tops the list, Reuters reports, with 120,000 apprehended for curfew violations in the past month. Sri Lanka has detained more than 26,800, according to the U.N., while Jordanian authorities are believed to have arrested about 800 people a day for breaking lockdown restrictions. In Kenya, Amnesty International told CNN that it has documented 16 people killed by police officers since a curfew was established – more than those killed by the virus itself. In South Africa, the U.N. reported cases of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighborhoods. Around 73,000 South African National Defence Force troops will be deployed on the streets until the end of June, according to the South African.

The lurking danger is that governments will not relinquish new powers claimed during the emergency once the danger from the contagion has passed. “It is problematic, this metaphor, that compares or that describes the coronavirus crisis and the way to confront it as war. This is not war. It’s a serious emergency, a sanitary emergency, and the government has to take reasonable steps according to public health officials,” Vivanco said. “If you characterize this emergency as war, the next step is to usually provide extra power, emergency power to the executive branch, without much checks and balances.” 

Another cause for worry is that governments around the world are silencing the media and political opponents. Human Rights Watch called on Chinese authorities Tuesday to immediately release five activists and citizen journalists for publicly reporting on the outbreak. “While Beijing is ramping up its global propaganda extolling its ‘success’ in containing covid-19, it is also forcibly disappearing those independently reporting on the pandemic,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at HRW. 

Earlier this month, Bolivia introduced measures that threaten anyone who spreads information about the virus that the government considers inappropriate with up to 10 years in prison. The measure, Vivanco said, was quickly used to punish opponents of interim president Jeanine Áñez, who took charge after Evo Morales left the country last year. “It’s so evident that the idea was to restrict free speech and to apply this legislation to the opposition,” he said.

The virus has also sparked growing xenophobic attacks against minority populations across the world. India’s 200 million Muslims have been scapegoated, for example. “Many Hindus say Muslims are deliberately attempting to spread coronavirus to wage a holy war or jihad against the majority Hindus,” Zainab Sikander, a political commentator based in New Delhi, told Foreign Policy. “Such bigotry has not only been normalized but has been encouraged through ruling party propaganda against Muslims.” 

Some local media organizations have accused members of the Indian Islamic organization Tablighi Jamaat of deliberately infecting themselves to transmit the virus to others. Earlier this year, members of this group were linked to more than 1,000 positive cases of the virus in the country, an incident that caused massive outrage and led to reports of rampant Islamophobia. Many of those infected have now recovered, and they’re volunteering to donate blood for plasma therapy, the BBC reports.

More global fallout

Brazil's president is growing more isolated by a corruption probe and his denial of the virus. 

“Investigators are circling. Supporters are turning their backs. Hundreds in his country are dying each day of a disease he has dismissed as a case of the sniffles. A majority of the people want him gone,” Terrence McCoy, Heloísa Traiano and Marina Lopes report. “Jair Bolsonaro, the man best positioned to buoy a bewildered people, is floundering — hemmed in by scandal, aggrieved by perceived betrayals, unfocused and contradictory in public pronouncements. His behavior has overlaid the health and economic emergencies with a political crisis, pushing Brazil into a period of extraordinary political volatility. Detractors are banging pots from their windows nightly. Two powerful and popular ministers, with the key portfolios of health and justice, have departed his cabinet. One of them, justice minister Sérgio Moro, accused him of corruption. Now, as the coronavirus death toll nears 5,000, the nation’s highest court has authorized a criminal investigation into whether Bolsonaro tried to manipulate the federal police for political gain.”

Lebanon faces growing instability.

“Violence escalated Tuesday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli as protesters angered by the collapse of the country's currency and spreading economic upheaval burned down a series of banks and countered volleys of tear gas by pelting security forces with stones,” Sarah Dadouch reports. “When Lebanese officials set a curfew and curbed movements in mid-March in response to the pandemic, the government gave itself a break from the street unrest and protesters retreated home. But shortly after the government announced Friday a five-phase plan to reopen the country, the protesters — overwhelmingly young and frustrated with the severe lack of job opportunities — emerged from their quarantine.” 

  • Millions of sex workers, mostly women, are excluded from government programs meant to address widespread unemployment and economic hardship, even though the pandemic has stopped them from plying their trade. (Miriam Berger)
  • Vladimir Putin extended Russia's national lockdown to May 11 and ordered his government to come up with a package of new measures to soften the economic impact. Moscow police have been criticized for taking a heavy-handed approach, arresting and fining citizens for going to shops and interrogating dog walkers. (Robyn Dixon)
  • Spain's government announced a plan to transition to a “new normal," which includes relaxing confinement measures on May 11. (Pamela Rolfe)
  • British Airways will cut up to 12,000 jobs, one-quarter of its overall workforce. (Teo Armus)
  • France ended its soccer season because of the virus, joining the Netherlands. (Matt Bonesteel)

The human toll

The U.S. has confirmed 1 million coronavirus infections, about a third of known cases worldwide.

“The grim milestone was expected, even as some states move to lift restrictions meant to slow the spread of the disease,” Anne Gearan and Felicia Sonmez report. “The 1 million mark and a U.S. death toll of more than 57,000 so far suggest that closures of schools, businesses and public spaces in many parts of the country over the past two months have helped. … The United States has the world’s highest number of confirmed cases, but Trump suggested Tuesday that the figure is misleading because ‘we’re doing much, much more testing than anybody else in the world.’ The number of coronavirus tests performed per 1,000 people in the United States is below the average of the 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” 

Covid-19 is much more lethal than the flu, but the fatality rate is lower than believed.

“The new serological data, which is provisional, suggests that coronavirus infections greatly outnumber confirmed covid-19 cases, potentially by a factor of 10 or more. Many people experience mild symptoms or none at all, and never get the standard diagnostic test with a swab up the nose, so they’re missed in the official covid-19 case counts,” Joel Achenbach reports. “Higher infection rates mean lower lethality risk on average. But the corollary is that this is a very contagious disease capable of being spread by people who are asymptomatic — a challenge for communities hoping to end their shutdowns. The crude case fatality rates, covering people who have a covid-19 diagnosis, have been about 6 percent globally as well as in the United States. But when all the serological data is compiled and analyzed, the fatality rate among people who have been infected could be less than 1 percent. But as infectious disease experts point out, even a seemingly low rate can translate into a shockingly large death toll if the virus spreads through a major portion of the population."

Faces of the fallen: 
  • Nearly 70 residents sickened with the virus died at a Massachusetts home for aging veterans. Federal officials are investigating whether residents at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home were denied proper medical care. (AP)
  • Edna Adams lived through the 1918 pandemic, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression and two world wars, all before she moved to D.C. in the mid-1950s. She died at 105, becoming the District's oldest victim of the virus. (Marissa Lang)
  • Jameela Dirrean-Emoni Barber, a Dallas teenager who was about to be inducted into the National Honor Society, died of complications related to the virus. She was 17. (Dallas Morning News)
Scientists are learning how to stop viruses from spreading on airplanes. They’re too late.

“Ultraviolet lights that promise to destroy viruses without hurting humans are being tested by Columbia University scientists, who say the lights would be effective in airplane cabins, airports, hospitals and schools,” Michael Laris reports. “Boeing is experimenting with lavatories that can sanitize themselves in less than three seconds. Engineers at the U.S. manufacturer and its top competitor, Airbus, have explored changing the way air moves around passengers to reduce infections.” 

  • The White House is finalizing new transit guidelines, which might include roped-off seats, marking where passengers should stand and regularly checking the temperature of workers. (Justin George and Lena Sun)
  • JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to mandate face masks for all its passengers. (NPR)
A former Wall Street Journal reporter in China is shaping the White House’s hard line policy toward Beijing. 

“In February, as Trump was projecting confidence that China’s Xi Jinping had the coronavirus under control, his deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger received some alarming information. The virus was spreading beyond China’s borders, and so, U.S. officials warned, was a disinformation campaign from the Communist Party in Beijing,” David Nakamura, Carol Leonnig and Ellen Nakashima report. “Chinese leaders, Pottinger believed, were engaging in a massive coverup and a ‘psychological warfare’ operation to obscure the origins of the virus and deflect blame … Pottinger urged Trump and other senior officials to brand the virus with a label so that there would be no mistaking its origins: the Wuhan virus. The episode illustrates the quiet but potent influence of the White House’s foremost China expert, whose personal experience as a journalist in that country two decades ago left him deeply distrustful of the regime in Beijing and is now shaping the administration’s hard line posture."

Most Americans are not willing or able to use an app to track infections. 

“Nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert apps under development by Google and Apple, suggesting a steep climb to win enough adoption of the technology to make it effective against the coronavirus pandemic, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds. The two tech giants are working with public health authorities and university researchers to produce apps that would notify users who had come in close contact with a person who tested positive for covid-19,” Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Alauna Safarpour report. “But the effort faces several major barriers, including that approximately 1 in 6 Americans do not have smartphones, which would be necessary for running any apps produced by the initiative. Rates of smartphone ownership are much lower among seniors, who are particularly vulnerable.” (James wrote on Monday about Australia's app.)  

Americans are losing faith in Trump's advice.

According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, 47 percent of U.S. adults said they were “very” or “somewhat” likely to follow recommendations Trump makes about the virus. That is 15 percent lower than the number who said they would follow the president’s advice last month. The good news is that 98 percent of respondents said they would not try to inject themselves with bleach or other disinfectants. But that leaves 2 percent. To wit: Two men in Georgia who suffered from psychiatric problems ingested disinfectants in an effort to protect themselves from the virus. They are expected to recover, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

  • A majority of Americans think the pandemic is being better handled by their state’s governor (64 percent) than Trump (32 percent), according to a new NPR-PBS-Marist poll.
  • Trump’s planned speech at West Point is creating logistical challenges and concerns that it will jeopardize the health of future Army leaders. Nearly 1,000 graduating cadets are being told they must travel back to campus from across the country so they can listen to the president give a speech, and then they will undergo up to three weeks of isolation. (Missy Ryan, Alex Horton and Robert Costa)

The economic toll

Some Georgia restaurants reopened for dine-in service on April 27 as the state continued to relax coronavirus restrictions. Many others chose to remain closed. (Video: The Washington Post)
The push to reopen the economy is running up against fearful workers and consumers.

“Plans for a swift reopening of malls, factories and other businesses accelerated Tuesday, but they quickly collided with the reality that persuading workers and consumers to overlook their coronavirus fears and resume their roles in powering the U.S. economy may prove difficult,” David Lynch and Abha Bhattarai report. “In the absence of a federal mandate, states are adopting varying approaches to the speed and pace of their commercial revivals. During a White House meeting with Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said he would make an announcement Wednesday on his state’s reopening plans. Businesses in Georgia — including massage parlors and barbershops — began welcoming customers Friday for the first time since Gov. Brian Kemp (R) issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order on April 2. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is allowing certain businesses, including retailers, restaurants and movie theater, to reopen at the end of the week, but at only 25 percent capacity.

“At the White House, Trump sought to look beyond the deepening recession that economists say is pushing unemployment higher than at any time since the Great Depression. He said July, August and September would bring a ‘transition’ to a stronger rebound in the weeks before and after the November election. … Millions of Americans have lost their jobs in recent weeks, forcing many families to rethink their spending habits. … Business owners say they also are facing a delicate balancing act, weighing the health of their employees against the need to make money. It wasn’t clear, many said, whether customers would even show up once they reopened, but they couldn’t risk staying closed if all of their competitors were open.”

  • The U.S. economy shrank 4.8 percent in the first quarter, the biggest decline since the Great Recession. Many analysts say the worst is yet to come. The second quarter will probably show a decline of at least 30 percent. (Heather Long)
  • Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who loosened social distancing restrictions in 77 of her state's 99 counties, told workers that they will lose their unemployment benefits if they are too afraid to go back to work, calling it a “voluntary quit.” A similar situation may play out in Texas, where Abbott allowed retail stores, restaurants, malls and movie theaters to reopen in a state where a worker must be “willing to work all the days and hours required” in order to qualify for unemployment benefits. (The Hill)
  • California could begin the new school year as early as July to address learning losses caused by the virus. (Los Angeles Times)
Trump is forcing meat processors to stay open. 

“Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open. Under the order, the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance,” Taylor Telford, Kimberly Kindy and Jacob Bogage report. “Worker safety experts say such an order would prevent local health officials from ordering meat companies to use their the most effective weapon available to protect their employees from the coronavirus — closures. They also fear that it would also undercut newly issued federal health guidelines designed to put space between plant workers. Trump has not publicly explained which provisions within the act he will rely on to compel plants to remain open or grant companies protection from workplace safety requirements. At least 20 meatpacking plants have closed in recent weeks because of covid-19 outbreaks. … Industry analysts say pork and beef processing has fallen 25 percent because of these outbreaks."

Black activists see a threat in the South’s plans to reopen. 

“They say the mostly white, male Republicans — who were reluctant to close their states but are now eager to reopen — are effectively issuing a ‘death sentence’ for millions of black Americans who have been disproportionately impacted both economically and medically by coronavirus,” the 19th reports. “A coalition of mostly black female activists led by Black Voters Matter, the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Highlander Research and Education Center launched a petition to the governors of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida, pleading with them to extend their stay-at-home orders. Reopening now ‘especially for cash-poor communities and communities of color, is irresponsible and a death sentence for many of us,’ they wrote. The groups are also calling on the states to create safety plans for essential workers — who are disproportionately minorities and female — before reopening, to report coronavirus data by race and county, to increase unemployment support and to expand Medicaid.”

The U.S. plans to lend $500 billion to large companies without requiring them to preserve jobs.

“Under the program, the central bank will buy up to $500 billion in bonds issued by large companies. The companies will use the influx of cash as a financial lifeline but are required to pay it back with interest,” Jeff Stein and Peter Whoriskey report. “Critics say the program could allow large companies that take the federal help to reward shareholders and executives without saving any jobs. The program was set up jointly by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. … Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended the corporate aid program, saying that the lack of restrictions on recipients had been discussed and agreed to by Congress.”

  • House leaders abruptly dropped plans to bring lawmakers back to Washington next week, citing warnings from the congressional physician about the continued rise of infections in D.C. and its suburbs. The Senate still plans to return. (Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim)
  • Boeing plans to slash 10 percent of its workforce – more than 14,000 jobs. (Aaron Gregg)
Some businesses won’t return Paycheck Protection Program funds despite pressure.

“Companies in the hotel, cruise ship and medical-device sectors said they are qualified to receive the money under the Paycheck Protection Program and need the funds to stay in business. Their resistance comes days after the Small Business Administration suggested dozens of publicly held companies should give back money received from the Paycheck Protection Program by May 7,” Jeanne Whalen, Aaron Gregg and Michelle Ye Hee Lee report. “Lindblad Expeditions Holdings, which operates high-end cruises, said it met the criteria for applicants and plans to keep its $6.6 million loan. The company reported having about $137 million in cash as of March 31. … A group of hotel companies chaired by Monty Bennett, a Dallas executive and Republican donor, said it also planned to keep the funds.” 

Overextended Airbnb hosts face large bills and losses. 

“[Airbnb] hosts brought with them cleaning services, interior designers and property-maintenance workers who helped build miniature property empires—so their plight has ripple effects that go far beyond their own listings,” the WSJ reports. “Though most real-estate economists say there are too few Airbnb properties to ignite a housing crisis, the breakdown of the Airbnb economy could strain lenders, undermine property values and validate some local governments’ long-held suspicions that Airbnb contributed to the affordable-housing crisis.”

  • Fans holding tickets for this season’s MLB games could be notified as soon as today about options for exchanges or, in some cases, refunds. (Dave Sheinin)
  • The league is tentatively planning to start the baseball season in late June, playing in home stadiums with no fans, USA Today reports.
  • Programmers across the country and across disciplines are contemplating the return of live performances. Some plans include quarantined actors, empty seats and ubiquitous temperature checks. (Geoff Edgers and Peggy McGlone)

Quote of the day

“The speed of our response looked slow compared to other people. That first phase will not stand out as a great moment in American leadership,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “We didn’t look real strong, and that’s kind of an understatement.” (Colby Itkowitz

The campaign

“For me, this is a moment that we need a leader, a president, like Joe Biden,” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in an April 28 livestream. (Video: Joe Biden/YouTube)
Democrats have reacted to a sexual assault allegation against Biden with pleas for an explanation – or silence.

“Biden has not addressed the accusations and has not been asked about them in any of the several television interviews he has done since [former aide Tara] Reade’s accusations gained significant public attention,” Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser and Annie Linskey report. “Biden has declined a request for an interview. He also has declined to release his Senate papers, which are being held at the University of Delaware and could shed light on personnel issues. His campaign has forcefully denied Reade’s claims. The escalating accounts have squeezed Democrats between two competing goals: to support all women accusing powerful men of misconduct and to defend Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, from what they say are unfounded accusations. 

"Some Democrats on Tuesday said his campaign’s denials were insufficient given the explosiveness of the assault accusation and the uncertainties about events dating back more than two decades. ‘I don’t want to minimize what happened to her. I’ve spent too many years doing this work to do that,’ said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a veteran South Carolina Democrat who plans to support Biden. ‘I think he needs to say something forceful so that we can try to put it behind us.’ … 

“Biden’s supporters, meantime, were more muted on Tuesday, with most refusing to comment when asked about the claims and signaling with their silence the fraught nature of the accusations. The Post reached out to numerous Biden supporters, top endorsers and potential running mates. Many chose neither to defend him nor to call on him to further explain. One major exception was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who issued a strong defense of Biden. [So did Stacey Abrams, who is aggressively campaigning to be on the ticket.] … A number of prominent women whom Biden has said he would consider as a running mate declined to comment Tuesday, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.)."

  • Hillary Clinton endorsed Biden, but neither took questions from reporters. (Michael Scherer)
  • Former senior aides to Sanders created a super PAC to energize young, liberal and Latino voters who backed Sanders in the primaries to support Biden in the general. (Colby Itkowitz)
  • Biden won the Democratic primary in Ohio, which was delayed and held largely by mail. (Felicia Sonmez and David Weigel)
  • Andrew Yang sued New York for canceling its primary. The former candidate argues that this denies voters due process and hurts down-ballot candidates. (Politico)
Rep. Justin Amash will seek the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination. 

The independent congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., who declared his independence from the GOP last July 4, ended months of speculation that he would run as an alternative to Trump and Joe Biden. “Americans are ready for practical approaches based in humility and trust of the people,” Amash tweeted. It’s unclear whether a bid by Amash would have a greater effect on Biden or on Trump," David Weigel reports. "In 2019, a Detroit News poll found Biden leading Trump in Michigan, a state that has grown more uncertain for the president, by 12 points. With Amash as an option, Biden’s lead shrunk to six points, with some independents and Republicans moving away from the Democrat. But national polling of Amash has been sparse, and it’s unclear how many states the Libertarian Party will attain ballot access in as the coronavirus pandemic makes traditional signature-gathering impossible.”

  • Kweisi Mfume easily beat his GOP rival in the special election to succeed the late congressman Elijah Cummings, winning back his old congressional seat in Baltimore. The election was largely conducted by mail, with more than 110,000 mail-in votes, and just over 1,000 people voting in person. (Rachel Chason and Jenna Portnoy)
  • Wisconsin has linked 52 coronavirus cases to the state’s election earlier this month. (AP)

Social media speed read

Vice President Pence is under fire for not wearing a mask:

The Mayo Clinic deleted a tweet saying Pence had been told he should wear a mask:

ABC News reporter Will Reeve was caught not wearing pants during an appearance on “Good Morning America”:

And the Denver Zoo flamingos made new friends while taking a stroll:

Videos of the day

Stephen Colbert criticized Trump for his decision to keep meat plants open: 

Trevor Noah pointed out that women- and minority-owned small businesses are still struggling to get financial support from the government: