Is COVID-19 Killing Democracy?

Alex Day discusses how autocrats around the world are seizing unprecedented levels of power whilst the international community is preoccupied with coronavirus.

By Alex Day

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated global headlines for over two months now – the international community that once policed the political crimes of the world is distracted by its individual responses to the crisis. Unchecked and unchallenged, various would-be autocrats around the world have seized the initiative to extend their power whilst foreign headlines are preoccupied with COVID-19.

The pandemic has accelerated the global thrust towards autocracy, with many leaders around the world taking unprecedented levels of power, they say, to help combat the virus. It is clear that personal liberties must be temporarily affected by an successful coronavirus response, but the possibilities for leaders to exploit this power is dangerously accessible. The pandemic is an autocrat’s best friend: lockdowns prevent protests, justify mass surveillance and ensure the international community is too caught up with their own responses to meddle with other nations’ affairs.

Although most leaders will undoubtedly do the honest thing and assure that their emergency powers are limited to the duration of the pandemic, many leaders are using the virus as an excuse to seize massive levels of power that holds democratic ideals hostage, hiding authoritarian rule under the guise of a public health emergency.

The idea that you should ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ is by no means a new one. During the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush took full advantage of the chaos and fear to launch two dubiously-motivated military invasions and passed controversial laws that allowed for the total surveillance of the population, he said, to protect against terrorist threats.

Emergency powers have been abused to rot democratic ideals and serve individual ambition for thousands of years. Julius Caesar became what is arguably the first emperor of Rome by declaring that his emergency powers would last for his entire life (dictato perpetuo), signalling the death of the democratic Roman Republic.

It is no surprise, then, that opportunistic autocrats are seizing that same opportunity right now to test the limits of their power. The time is ripe: the international community is distracted with their individual responses to the pandemic; their headlines have little space for the power grabs of foreign leaders.

Take China, for example. The country has been foaming at the mouth for ownership of the South China Sea for decades but has been curtailed by international gridlock – until now. Whilst the international community is preoccupied with their own responses to the pandemic, Beijing seized the initiative to establish two territories in the contested South China Sea – the new Xisha and Nansha provinces are officially under Beijing’s control.

The South China Sea has long been a theatre of increasing Chinese encroachment and militarization: the distraction of a pandemic made for a perfect opportunity for Beijing to tighten its grip on the region.

Similarly, Hong Kong has always represented an Achilles’ Heel to an otherwise ruthlessly effective Chinese regime. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) exploited this moment of international distraction to arrest the most important pro-democracy (and anti-Beijing) figures in Hong Kong. Coincidence? Probably not. Beijing is fully aware that now is the perfect time to pursue goals that were until now prevented by the stalemate of international criticism.

This problem is not limited to faraway corners of the globe. Right in the heart of Europe, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban now has unlimited power to rule by decree, as a part of his new ‘coronavirus law’. No time limit was specified to his powers, although parliament can repeal them if it votes to do so.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

However, Orban’s party having a vast majority, it seems very unlikely this will happen. Even more improbable is Orban simply giving up these autocratic powers once the coronavirus nightmare comes to an end; he has been eroding the institutional checks and balances on Hungary’s democracy for quite some time. COVID-19 just presented an irresistible opportunity to put the icing on the dictatorial cake.

The warning signs are showing in America’s democracy, too. Trump recently boasted of his “total authority” over state governors, something the U.S. Constitution repeatedly disproves. The President has long sought to punish states that deviated from his draconian immigration policy: COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to do so.

Trump has threatened to provide no coronavirus aid and withhold federal funding from states that host ‘sanctuary cities’ that don’t adhere to his administration’s immigration policies. The President is using the crisis to extend his presidential power and to intimidate opposition, which are very bad signs for American democracy. Thankfully, Congress rejected the Department of Justice’s request to be allowed to indefinitely detain people without trial. Stories like this often fly under the radar during a pandemic, but they present enormous threats to democracy.

Obviously, personal liberties will inevitably be compromised by an effective coronavirus response. However, the potential for abuse is clear. We must not allow leaders to use disaster as distraction and manipulate this crisis for the furtherance of their own authoritarian agendas.

Certainly, it is difficult to see past the fog of headlines about daily death tolls and coronavirus briefings and to allow these flagrant violations of democratic decorum to go unchallenged. That ignorance, however, is exactly what leaders like Xi Jinping and Victor Orban are counting on, and that ignorance is placing democracy under existential threat.

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Alex Day discusses how autocrats around the world are seizing unprecedented levels of power whilst the international community is preoccupied with coronavirus.