DemocracyWatch: Governments roll back environmental protections

Under the cover of the pandemic, governments across the planet are trashing laws which protect the planet.

12 August 2020, 7.00am
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Around the world, governments are using the economic collapse that’s come with the pandemic as an excuse to rip up environmental protections and crack down on concerned citizens.

In England, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are proposing to shred planning laws that protect green spaces – after openDemocracy revealed they have received £11 million from property developers in recent years. In India, forty new coalfields in some of the country’s most ecologically sensitive forests are to be opened up for commercial mining. In Brazil, the government has used the pandemic as cover for a huge surge in executive acts, dismantling laws protecting the country’s rich forests and wildlife. 

Meanwhile, a new study has found that diseases carried by wild animals and deadly to humans – like the novel coronavirus – thrive when nature is destroyed. 

Likewise, the pandemic has intensified attacks on workers’ rights around the world.

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In Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India, COVID has led to union-busting and unfair dismissals of unionised garment workers, according to a new report. About 4,900 people were allegedly targeted for dismissal by nine factories supplying major fashion brands including Primark, Zara, and H&M. 

The report noted that H&M, Levi Strauss & Co and Inditex – another of the nine brands – have been widely hailed in their COVID-19 response as rights-respecting leaders because they were honouring payments with suppliers.

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Step forward

There have been a number of victories for activists and demonstrators in the past two weeks. Ireland's supreme court has forced the government to strengthen its climate commitments, while the Malaysian authorities have largely walked back new filming rules after admitting political overreach. In response to protests from teenagers, the Scottish government has apologised and said it would reconsider after students who missed key exams because of COVID had their projected results downgraded more if they came from poorer areas.

Step back

Global The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in demand for software that monitors students during exams, known as ‘proctoring’ tools. The systems are accused of perpetuating discrimination and violating privacy rights. 


The economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic could lead to large new waves of migration once borders reopen, with risks of human trafficking, exploitation and deaths in transit, according to the Red Cross.


China/Hong Kong China has sent a COVID-19 testing team to Hong Kong, prompting surveillance fears.

Hong Kong China has been accused of using the pandemic as a pretext to postpone the 2020 Legislative Council elections. The one-year postponement is seen as a political manoeuvre designed to quash dissent and provide additional time to disqualify or prosecute more pro-democracy candidates.

China An outbreak of COVID-19 in the province of Xinjiang has prompted concerns that it might spread inside Uighur internment camps where cases may never be made public.

Philippines Health workers have urged the government to provide protective gear as new coronavirus infections continue to rise in the country. President Rodrigo Duterte slammed doctors for their critical approach. 

Malaysia A court has remanded Mohammed Rayhan Kabir, who was arrested for appearing in an Al Jazeera documentary, for another thirteen days, the Bangladeshi migrant’s lawyer said.

Australia Melbourne authorities have warned of a "dangerous" rise in people resisting lockdown measures, sometimes violently. Police said this trend included so-called ‘sovereign citizens’, who espouse an anti-government conspiracy theory. 

Fiji COVID restrictions have been used to arrest the librarian at the University of the South Pacific in the middle of a wave of student protests in support of their vice chancellor, who blew the whistle on corruption allegations. Many have speculated the arrest had more to do with her support for the students.

Vanuatu The president has extended the state of emergency to the end of the year, and been accused by opposition politicians of stripping citizens of their basic rights. 

Samoa The prime minister has been accused of using the pandemic to impose his religious beliefs after he proposed laws to entrench Sunday shutdowns after the end of lockdown.

Middle East and North Africa

Iran The number of deaths from COVID-19 in the country is nearly triple what the government has publicly stated, a BBC Persian service investigation has found.

Saudi Arabia Migrants have reported being arrested and taken to cramped cells with minimal food and no water but toilet water.

Kuweit, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia experts have predicted a rise in female genital mutilation during the pandemic, with women and girls locked at home.


Zimbabwe Police in the capital have thwarted planned protests by shutting down major transit routes, arresting several government critics and forcing many more into hiding. Over the past few months, officers have used coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to arrest the government’s political opponents, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

Angola The ruling party, the MPLA, has admitted for the first time the possibility of postponing municipal elections this year because of COVID-19. Opposition UNITA says it is a pretext for defending party interests.

South Africa The South African intelligence service has warned of a possible wave of xenophobic violence due to the economic crisis triggered by the new coronavirus.

Malawi With the number of cases rising rapidly, human rights groups have warned of COVID deaths in packed prisons with many elderly and terminally ill inmates.

Uganda Electoral rallies for the 2021 presidential elections have been banned to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. The main opponent of President Yoweri Museveni has accused the government of using the measure to obstruct his election campaign.


US President Donald Trump’s executive order attempting to push through his proposed economic relief package has been denounced as “unconstitutional slop” by a fellow Republican.

US Trump has floated the idea of a possible election delay citing voter fraud linked to postal voting. The idea was rejected by lawmakers in both parties.

US Up to $1 billion in small-business relief dollars has gone to hotel chains with more than 500 employees. One beneficiary was the client of a former aide to Senator Susan Collins, who was among many lobbying her to create this special exception.

US Anti-abortion centres have received at least $4 million from US coronavirus bailout funds.

Canada For three months during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto Police Service stopped accepting most Freedom of Information requests.

Nicaragua The pandemic has worsened conditions for undocumented Nicaraguan workers in Costa Rica.

Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has released thousands of inmates because of the threat posed by the virus, but kept political prisoners behind bars.

Bolivia Demonstrators supporting former president Evo Morales have brought the country to a standstill to protest against repeated delays to a rerun of last year’s controversial elections.

Brazil Some indigenous people are reluctant to seek medical treatment for fear that their bodies will not be returned to the community if they die, after three babies from the Yanomami group who died with suspected COVID-19 infection were buried in a cemetery far from their villages

Guatemala More than 200 workers have tested positive at a garment factory supplying Amazon, Gap and American Eagle.

Guyana A lockdown has prevented protests against the government’s attempt to stay in power despite losing an election. 

St Kitts and Nevis The government imposed a strict lockdown during the general elections in June, hampering opposition efforts to meet voters while also keeping international election observers from travelling to the country.

Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia A “tsunami” of “fake news” has hurt Latin America's effort to fight coronavirus, according to The Observer.


UK The government has been accused of allowing the pandemic to strip basic rights from prisoners.

UK Defence chiefs are considering a request from the Home Office for help to ‘deal with’ migrants attempting to cross the English Channel.

Germany The country is debating curbing freedom of assembly after around 17,000 people attended packed rallies in Berlin protesting COVID-19 measures.

Germany Health authorities in three federal states have been accused of threatening to remove children under 11 if parents do not comply with instructions to ‘isolate’ them within the family in case of an infection or a suspected case. The authorities have called it an error in communication.

Russia A ban on holding rallies in Moscow has been extended until the end of summer while the city authorities remain allowed to hold mass events.

Belarus Police have violently suppressed protests after ‘dictator’ Lukashenko was declared the winner of the election, despite an alternative exit poll suggesting challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya came out on top.

Italy Mayors in the south have spoken of concerns about overcrowded migrant reception centres. July saw a particularly large number of people coming to Italy because of calm seas, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Greece Médecins Sans Frontières has announced that it has been forced to close its COVID-19 isolation centre on the island of Lesvos after local authorities enforced planning regulations.

Climate and environment

US The Trump administration's efforts to weaken environmental standards have continued unabated during the pandemic. In the coming days, the Environment Protection Agency is expected to roll back controls on the climate-heating gas methane.

US Some companies in Indiana allegedly tried to exploit the crisis by sending questionable requests to relax the enforcement of rules and regulations to the environmental protection agency, which has been flooded with requests over the last four months.

India Forty new coalfields in ecologically sensitive forests are to be opened up for commercial mining as part of a plan to boost the economy after the pandemic.

India The government has blocked three campaign websites that oppose recently published draft regulations which are accused of seriously undermining environmental protections. The websites had allowed people to formally file objections to the draft law as part of a public consultation open until 11 August.

UK Radical changes to the nation’s planning regulations will damage the environment, increase air pollution and leave local people with no say on protecting urban wildlife corridors, according to environmental charities.

Ecuador A vast Chinese fishing armada numbering more than 240 boats sighted off Ecuador’s Pacific islands has raised fears for Galápagos biodiversity.

Brazil The administration has utilised the COVID-19 crisis to further undermine the country’s environmental laws. According to a survey, the environment ministry in particular has made intense use of acts, bypassing Congress, to dismantle environmental protections.

Brazil In the midst of the pandemic, thousands of gold miners are illegally clearing forests and polluting rivers within the Amazon Indigenous Territories and Conservation Units.

Mozambique The US, Japan and the UK are among the backers of a $20 billion project led by operator Total to extract, liquefy and export gas from Mozambique, despite concerns about climate, security and human rights.

Thailand One thousand elephants could starve to death because the camps where they are exploited for tourism had to close due to COVID-19.

Antarctica The British Antarctic Survey is scaling back its research and postponing projects for a year because of the pandemic, including work on a rapidly melting glacier.

Good news

Ireland In a win for campaigners, the country's supreme court has forced the government to strengthen its existing emission-cutting plans which fell “well short” of what was required to meet its climate commitments, according to the judgment.

Malaysia Authorities have largely reversed a ruling made last week that would have required every conceivable form of film-making to apply for licences and shooting permits.

UK Responding to teenagers’ protests, the Scottish government has apologised and said it would think again after school students who had missed key exams due to COVID had their projected results downgraded more if they came from poorer areas.

South Africa The nationwide coronavirus lockdown and the disruption of international smuggling rings is partly responsible for a 50% decline in rhinos killed by poachers in the first half of the year.

US Starting from 31 August, the US Environmental Protection Agency will return to pre-COVID enforcement guidelines.

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