The ranks of the infected now include a world-famous opera singer, a U.S. senator and a doctor who was directly tending to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Governments everywhere are grappling with ways to stem the spread of the disease, while also bracing for critical shortfalls in medical supplies and hospital beds. Governments have implemented emergency protocols to clamp down on travel and push through relief measures.
In a time of crisis, such action is vital. But some leaders also appear to be exploiting the pandemic for their own political ends.
Numerous Arab monarchies and autocracies, including some under serious political pressure, have invoked public health imperatives to secure themselves a reprieve from mass protests. A widely criticized interim regime in Bolivia postponed planned elections in May as part of a slate of emergency measures, including a 14-day national quarantine. From Hong Kong to India to Russia, authorities cited the risk of spreading coronavirus as grounds to disperse anti-government demonstrations and bar large public gatherings.
Crisis management, like war, is politics by other means. The most glaring example of this right now may be in Israel. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a pliant Justice Ministry postpone his arraignment on corruption charges, while coronavirus-induced emergency decrees have interrupted the formation of Israel’s new government after elections this month. The absence of a functional government has prevented the country’s newly elected parliament from pushing through legislation that could prevent an indicted politician like him from becoming prime minister.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is playing up his role as commander in chief, staging daily national security briefings alongside allies. “If Trump’s aim is to rally his voters for the upcoming election, Netanyahu’s is to make opposition voters forget the results of the previous one,” wrote Bernard Avishai in the New Yorker.
“Netanyahu, who, for the past ten years, has severely underfunded hospitals, doctors’ salaries, and medical education, has largely succeeded in escaping such criticism by flaunting his mastery of the stringent guidelines imposed by the health bureaucracy,” he added.
Talks to forge a unity government have so far stalled. The prime minister and his colleagues “have shut down parliament, enacted extreme ‘security’ measures without legislative oversight and shelved the courts just as Netanyahu was about to go on trial for corruption,” wrote Israeli commentator Gershom Gorenberg for The Washington Post. “I don’t use the word ‘coup’ lightly. But any weaker description of Netanyahu’s assault on Israeli democracy is a refusal to absorb and report the truth.”
An illiberal ally of the Israeli leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is also exercising new coronavirus-enabled powers. After spending days linking the contagion to illegal migration, Orban and his nationalist government extended an emergency law with new provisions that could potentially be used to criminalize critical press. “Orban would be allowed to announce steps to contain the pandemic via decrees until the government no longer sees it as necessary, according to the draft legislation published on the parliament website late Friday,” noted Bloomberg News. “Promoting false information that hinders authorities’ efforts would carry a prison term of as long as five years.”
Critics warned that this was just the latest subversion in Orban’s decade-long takeover of the country’s democratic system. “Step by step, the governing majority extinguished the professional, organizational, and financial autonomy of public institutions, while putting such control mechanisms in place that ensure the prime minister’s decision making power in all significant policy areas,” wrote David Vig, director of Amnesty International in Hungary.
And the United States isn’t immune, either. President Trump’s Department of Justice is reportedly seeking expanded emergency powers, including provisions for judges to have the power to detain people indefinitely. It’s unlikely to be accepted by Congress.
Though public health concerns remain paramount, analysts are increasingly warning about the risk of the erosion of the rule of law. “These crises are risky for democracies more than anything,” political scientist Erica Frantz told Britain’s Independent. “I see these crises as opportunities for governments to crack down. We really need to pay attention to crisis events that can be used for transitions from democracy to take place.”
In a letter issued last week, a group of U.N. human rights experts and special rapporteurs issued a reminder to governments “that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.”
“Emergency declarations based on the [coronavirus] outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals,” their statement read. “It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.”