DemocracyWatch: global pandemic power grabs

Rights and freedoms cut in the name of coronavirus this week

16 April 2020, 7.00am

The coronavirus does not discriminate. It can attack anyone, young or old, rich or poor. But when it comes to its wider effects, not everyone suffers the same.

Around the world, women, minorities and other marginalised groups have often been disproportionately affected by draconian curbs on their rights. 

As openDemocracy revealed this week, millions of women around the world will struggle to get sexual and reproductive healthcare with thousands of clinics closed. As this newsletter is being pinged into your inbox, Poland is considering proposals to tighten its abortion laws – a move that was abandoned four years ago amid widespread protests.

Meanwhile, governments from Cambodia to Turkey have seized on the pandemic as a chance to increase repression and consolidate their power. In China, Beijing has even imposed restrictions on academic research into the origins of the virus.

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  • France Medef, the representative of big employers, suggested paring back bank holidays, paid leave and working hours as part of the post-crisis recovery. 
  • Italy The Mafia is exploiting the pandemic to exert more control over the country’s poor by buying food, according to ‘Gomorrah’ author Roberto Saviano. 
  • UK Technology companies including Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon are urging the government to delay a long-awaited digital services tax to give them “more breathing space” in the coronavirus crisis.
  • Russia One person was killed and hundreds injured when inmates rioted in a Siberan prison. Reports suggested that guards had been taken advantage of lack of outside scrutiny to beat prisoners.
  • Ukraine 5,000 coronavirus testing kits imported from China were allegedly set aside for exclusive use by members of parliament and other senior public officials, according to documents obtained by Slidstvo.
  • Germany Romanian officials called on Germany to halt packed flights taking its citizens to work on farms in Germany at a risk to their health. 
  • Serbia Police said they detained the director of a state-run retirement home after a coronavirus outbreak there, Al Jazeera reported.
  • Italy and Malta officially stopped rescue operations and closed their ports to refugees due to the crisis, with Libya also declaring its seaports “unsafe”, abandoning hundreds of migrants in mid-ocean.
  • Greece Homeless asylum seekers were reportedly fined for being outside and harrassed by police. 
  • Poland MPs were due on Wednesday to consider proposals to tighten abortion laws, prompting accusations that the government is exploiting the crisis to avoid protests that helped scupper a similar bill in 2016.


  • Tanzania Three media outlets were fined for spreading “misleading and untrue” information, according to the communications regulator. They had been critical of President John Magafuli’s claim that the virus could not survive in a church. 
  • Morocco Security services have arrested 30,898 people for jeopardising nationwide efforts against the virus. People convicted of violating state-of-emergency measures, including failing to wear masks in public, face prison sentences of one to three months and fines.
  • Ethiopia A state of emergency granted sweeping powers to the president followed the indefinite postponement of elections originally due last August. Emergency laws have previously been misused to crack down on citizens’ rights, the opposition said.
  • Sudan Doctors said they were beaten by police while responding to the crisis.
  • South Africa Schools have been vandalised, burgled or set alight across the country since the start of the lockdown. In Johannesburg prison officials faked virus precautions during an inspection.
  • Congo a video circulated online of the police in Kinshasa assaulting a taxi driver for violating a one-passenger limit.
  • Senegal Video showed police swiping at fleeing protesters with batons on the first night of curfew as those in crowded accommodation struggle to  stick to the rules.
  • Uganda Police broke down doors and forced people out of informal settlements in a village in the north of the country, injuring thirty women and an unknown number of men.


  • US Google and Apple are developing technology to track users automatically without the need to download a dedicated app. Major companies are furloughing employees while paying shareholder dividends despite a pledge last year to defend workers’ interests. Several states ordered abortion centres to close as ‘non-essential businesses’ while many ‘essential’ pro-life centres remain open
  • Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro was accused of undermining Brazil’s fight against the virus by its health minister, having twice considered illegally overruling state-level lockdowns. 
  • Chile A group of senators attempted to include military agents convicted for human rights abuses under the dictatorship of Augusto Pincochet in an emergency prisoner release scheme. 
  • Bolivia The government made disinformation over the pandemic punishable by up to ten years in prison, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to warn of the “dangerous possibility of abuse against journalists”.
  • Mexico Migrants have been arbitrarily detained in violation of international law.
  • Colombia Armed groups are threatening brutal enforcement measures to prevent the spread of the virus.


  • China  Beijing has imposed restrictions on academic research into the origins of the virus. Africans living in Guangzhou reported enforced random testing and quarantines despite having no symptoms or contact with known patients. McDonald’s apologised after a restaurant banned black people amid worries over infected foreigners. Detained human rights lawyer Qin Yongpei was denied a meeting with his attorney to “prevent the spread of the virus”. 
  • India  Police in the northern state of Rajasthan arrested over 6,000 people between 22 March and 13 April for violating lockdown orders, officials said. Muslims have been targeted in a wave of violence across the country after India’s health ministry repeatedly blamed an Islamic seminary for spreading the virus and party officials spoke of ““corona jihad”.
  • Bangladesh 29 local government officials were arrested for alleged corruption and theft of food meant for the poor during the lockdown. A local surveillance company claims it can “track down infected people” with a facial recognition system able to recognise someone wearing a mask with 87% accuracy. 
  • Cambodia Parliament passed an emergency law granting its leader, Hun Sen, new powers including unlimited surveillance of telecommunications and greater control of the press and social media, as well as the ability to seize property. Police arrested a journalist and revoked the licence of his news site, TVFB, after he quoted the prime minister on the economic consequences of the pandemic. 
  • Philippines The government will force the publication of names of patients who have tested positive for the virus, cabinet secretary Karlo Nograles said.
  • Indonesia Police have charged 51 people for allegedly spreading misinformation about coronavirus and arrested a young man accused of criticising the government’s refusal to introduce a lockdown. 
  • Turkey The country's highest court will rule on a controversial amnesty law that provides for the release of tens of thousands of prisoners but would keep journalists and dissenters behind bars.
  • Armenia The government asked parliament to approve legislation that could weaken freedom of information laws, a move environmental campaigners say would benefit mining interests at the expense of communities.
  • Azerbaijan At least sixteen opposition activists have been detained since the outbreak began, a coalition of opposition parties said in a statement. Residents are now required to send an SMS notification before leaving their houses, while over-65s are banned from leaving home at all.
  • Pakistan Personal details of people infected with the virus, including their phone numbers and addresses, were leaked and circulated across messaging apps in Baluchistan. 
  • Singapore The lead developer of TraceTogether, one of the most high-profile virus tracking apps, said the technology could never replace manual contact tracing and that attempts to “big data your way out of a no-data situation” are an “an exercise in hubris”.
  • Myanmar police have been using anti-terror legislation to crackdown on independent media.

Middle East

  • Saudi Arabia The government stepped up deportations of thousands of Ethiopians, including some suspected of suffering from coronavirus, an act that migrant advocates described as reckless and inhumane. 
  • Bahrain A journalist jailed since 2015 was put in solitary confinement after disputing reports that authorities had taken measures to protect prisoners.
  • United Arab Emirates The chief minister of India's Kerala state urged his prime minister to repatriate Indian workers in the UAE, expressing alarm at the country’s "inadequate isolation and quarantine facilities".
  • Iraq A deep-seated distrust of the government is impeding the fight against coronavirus, health officials told The New York Times. 
  • Qatar The lockdown of a densely populated neighbourhood for immigrant workers will be lifted gradually, a government spokeswoman said. 
  • Jordan The owner and news director of Roya TV were arrested after broadcasting a report on people suffering financial difficulties due to the lockdown.
  • Egypt A proposed law will demand compulsory donations to the government depending on income. 
  • Lebanon Political parties are taking over aid distribution in the absence of the state.



  • US A new website, Pandemic Policy, is tracking how the pandemic “has unintentionally sparked changes pushed by reformers for decades”. 

On Wednesday 22 April, openDemocracy’s Peter Geoghegan will be joining writer Oliver Bullough and journalist Carole Cadwalladr to discuss dark money and data in British politics in the first of a series of After Lockdown webinars. Book tickets for free here

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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