Coronavirus is a public health emergency. Tens of thousands have died. Many times that are sick. But this crisis is also political.
Parliaments have been suspended, new laws pushed through, rights and freedoms curtailed.
In accepting these measures, we need assurance of two things. One is that they are proportionate. The other is that they are temporary.
openDemocracy and our partners Source Material are tracking how this pandemic is affecting democracy across the world.
Each week we’ll send an email bulletin on how governments are suspending civil rights, ramping up surveillance and rolling back hard-won freedoms. Below you can read the first one.
We don’t yet know exactly what the lasting effects of this pandemic will be. But we do know that we have to watch closely.
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- UK Authorities including the Local Government Association and Greater Manchester Police called for a relaxation of freedom of information laws during the crisis, while police forces across the country faced criticism for inconsistencies in applying lockdown rules. Click here to read more about how coronavirus is affecting the British constitution.
- Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova and Romania These six states announced plans to suspend participation in the European Convention on Human Rights because of the epidemic. They notified the Council of Europe of their intention, with Bulgaria expected to follow, Euractiv reported.
- Hungary Parliament voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. The order also allows the suspension of parliament, punishments for journalists if the government believes their coronavirus reporting is not accurate and heavier penalties for violating quarantine regulations. No election or referendum can be held while it is in place.
- Russia Anyone who violates the quarantine and infects others should be punished with death, said the leader of Russia’s republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. (Moscow Times, citing regional publication Caucasian Knot). Meanwhile, police dressed in black uniforms and holding white bats patrolled the streets of the Chechen town of Shali. In Moscow, police claimed to have caught and fined 200 people who violated quarantine and self-isolation using facial recognition and a 170,000-camera system.
- Kosovo A recently elected left-wing government was forced from office following a dispute over the handling of the pandemic response. Writing on openDemocracy, a group of academics criticised the US-backed overthrow, arguing that the ousted administration had contained the spread of the virus “more effectively than in directly neighbouring countries”.
- Montenegro Activists and journalists called on the government to postpone a public debate on proposed amendments to freedom of information laws, saying meaningful discussion was impossible during the pandemic.
- Belarus The State Control Committee, which oversees the country’s financial investigations, detained Siarhei Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after it published reports on coronavirus.
- India Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked the country’s poor for forgiveness after announcing a lockdown with only four hours’ notice, leaving many workers with long treks by foot to their home villages. The governor of Telangana threatened to introduce “shoot at sight” orders for those not adhering to the lockdown.
- Philippines Congress granted President Rodrigo Duterte special emergency powers that could remain in force until 2022. Since then there have been mass arrests, with more than 17,000 detained for lockdown-related violations, according to data from the Philippine National Police (PNP) cited by the Rappler news network.
- Azerbaijan President Aliyev suggested coronavirus may require a crackdown on political opposition. “Isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity,” he said.
- Kyrgyzstan Authorities used COVID-19 as a pretext to stop an International Women’s Day march earlier this month, despite the fact that there were no registered cases in the country at the time.
- Kazakhstan Despite the government’s promises to reform restrictive protest laws, the national parliament rushed through the first vote on a bill to maintain tight controls over peaceful assembly.
- Israel The defence minister published a programme to tackle the epidemic including recommendations for a system jointly developed by the military and a private company, NSO – accused in the past of creating malware used by authoritarian regimes to harvest data from targets’ phones. The software will track the mobile phones of people with coronavirus and award citizens a ‘contagion rating’ from 1 to 10, Haaretz reported.
- Egypt Authorities forced a journalist to leave the country after she reported on a scientific study that said Egypt was likely to have many more coronavirus cases than officially confirmed.
- Morocco Videos circulating on social media show police beating up and attacking people who are not abiding by the state lockdown order. More than 1,000 people are reported to have been prosecuted for not abiding by the new emergency law and curfew orders.
- Lebanon Authorities arrested a number of activists for protesting against the lack of planning to fight the pandemic in the country and broke up a protesters’ camp in downtown Beirut. Ghayth Hammoud, a spokesperson of protesters in the northern district of Akar, was released after being beaten up and having his arm broken.
- Iraq and Algeria Coronavirus has shut down pro-democracy street movements which had begun to emerge.
- Guinea Coronavirus last week forced the cancellation of an attempted mediation by African leaders with President Alpha Conde ahead of a referendum, marred by violence and boycotts, in which 92%% of voters approved a constitution that could allow him to seek a third term. Coronavirus was "a pretext", a source close to Niger’s presidency told Le Monde: "We told ourselves that this mediation was useless."
- Kenya Human rights groups condemned the "unnecessary and excessive use of force" by Kenyan police as the country imposed a curfew. Police had used tear gas and beatings against civilians trying to get home in time for curfew and beat up a journalist, a coalition of activist groups said in a statement. Police also killed a thirteen-year-old boy, reportedly for breaking the curfew.
- South Africa Police fired rubber bullets towards hundreds of shoppers queueing outside a supermarket in Johannesburg and used whips to enforce social distancing. Last week the country criminalised disinformation about the coronavirus, prompting the United Nations to warn that: “Any attempts to criminalize information relating to the pandemic may create distrust in institutional information, delay access to reliable information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
- Uganda President Yoweri Museveni ordered the police to arrest politicians who offer food handouts to communities and for them to be charged with attempted murder.
- Brazil Facebook took the rare step of deleting a video posted by President Jair Bolsonaro where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places” despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating coronavirus. Twitter also deleted posts by Bolsonaro. Across the country, people protested against Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the crisis by beating pots and pans at their open windows after he called the population to get “back to work”.
- Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro also saw one of his posts deleted by Twitter. In his tweet, Maduro had invited followers to take a homemade herbal potion for twelve days to “remove coronavirus’s infectious genes”.
- Colombia Death squads are taking advantage of coronavirus lockdowns to murder rural activists, local NGOs have warned.
- Paraguay Police were praised by the interior minister after sharing videos of themselves punishing civilians.
- US The Environmental Protection Agency will waive many pollution regulations while there are restrictions on travel movements, Bloomberg reported. The EPA said it would not pursue companies unable to complete "routine monitoring and reporting obligations” because of coronavirus measures. Environmentalists complained that if refineries and chemical plants were able to keep running, they should also be able to comply with the law. The EPA has also delayed the introduction of cleaner summertime petrol to help refiners reduce their surpluses of winter fuel, Bloomberg reported.
- Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said the European Union should ditch its green law seeking carbon neutrality as it battles the coronavirus.
- Poland The country relies heavily on coal-fired power stations and will find it even more difficult to achieve the European Union’s climate goals because of the impact of the epidemic on the economy, the government said.
It’s not just governments. Ultraconservative and far-right movements around the world are celebrating as coronavirus locks women in the home, shuts down abortion clinics, suspends parliaments and postpones democratic debates about women’s and minority rights. Data mining companies are also having a field day.
The good news
Many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic. If that includes you, try reading “Four ways you can take caring action around coronavirus”.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari has written in the Financial Times about how the choices we make now will affect the future.
And we held an online, global discussion about what we can do now to start building a more equal future for all on Thursday 2 April. You can watch it here.
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