Beware of Political Manipulation in Assessing Success Against the Coronavirus

As every region of the world confronts the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, it is tempting to wonder whether the severe approach of modern authoritarians and populist leaders isn’t our best chance at survival. After all, China seems to have the pandemic under control.

But that would give repressive leaders in China, Egypt, Iran, Hungary, and even perhaps the United States, way too much credit. It would not only endorse their expansive and harsh responses, but it would undermine a core public-health principle for combatting pandemics: open and transparent communication. Along with rigorous testing and competent political leadership that elevates science and best practices, transparency is a vital tool to enhance public trust. South Korea, Taiwan, and to some degree Japan manifested such responses, and all of them seem to have avoided a catastrophic spread of COVID-19. These governments recognized the threat, acted aggressively, and were open and honest about the risk.

This is a global emergency. For most of us, it is uncharted territory and it is scary. Yes, there will be restrictions on certain fundamental rights, but proper pandemic response does not mean they have to be extensive or long lasting.  Power grabs that exploit the current dynamic and perpetuate false information create more fear and chaos – not less – and don’t help save lives.

It is now well-known that before it began its aggressive response to COVID-19, China’s first move was to silence Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to issue an early warning. By forcing the physician to “confess” that he was “making false comments,” the government lost precious time. In fact, Li told the New York Times just before he died from the Coronavirus that “if [government] officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

Yes, once Chinese leaders acknowledged the speed of transmission and potentially deadly nature of the virus, they acted fast to curb it, and with drastic measures. But at least one report now shows that, had interventions in [China] been conducted “one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent, and 95 percent respectively.” Only when they came clean about the seriousness of the viral spread could they take the actions that brought their populations back from the brink. Since then, however, Chinese state media and its diplomats abroad have reverted to form, launching a propaganda campaign to reframe the government’s official response as an unmitigated success.

China, unfortunately, is not alone in using this pandemic to flex its authoritarian muscle. Earlier this month, Egyptian authorities arrested four prominent activists protesting the spread of COVID-19 in Egypt’s overcrowded prison system, long known for deeply substandard hygienic care, and detained them for hours. Requests from Egyptian organizations and family members for the conditional release of thousands of prisoners who have been unjustly detained have been met with silence.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the coronavirus to further his xenophobic agenda, ramp up his anti-migrant rhetoric, and suspend asylum procedures. But perhaps most egregious are the sweeping new powers the parliament — dominated by Orban’s Fidesz party — just gave him by passing the “protecting against coronavirus” law.  This new law, which is deeply draconian, allows the prime minister to run the country by decree. Elections will no longer take place, and those who spread “false information” could be punished with imprisonment, leading many to fear that this power grab is also likely to be used against journalists and others critical of the government. For weeks, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, has noted that what the Hungarian people really need is “strong rule of law safeguards and proportional and necessary emergency measures, not unlimited government rule by decree that can last beyond the actual epidemic crisis.” Alarmingly, what they’ve gotten instead is the first European Union member state to be run indefinitely by one man, without any fear or challenge.

Meanwhile, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has drastically downplayed the infectiousness of the virus, and publicly lamented the closing of businesses, churches, and other venues across the country – even going on live TV to tell Brazilians such measures were “absurd.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose hardline leadership has been threatened by multiple elections and multiple corruption scandals, has used COVID-19 fears to shut down Israeli courts and pass an emergency law allowing domestic security services to track Israeli citizens via their cellphone data, with no opt-out provision. Shutting down the court appears unnecessary, except that Netanyahu can benefit politically: his trial for bribery and fraud – scheduled to begin a day after he closed the courts – is now postponed.

In the United States, the Trump administration’s response mirrors, in many ways, China’s earliest days. President Donald Trump has lied and promoted disinformation. He has embraced isolationism and bigotry by banning all asylum seekers entering the United States from Mexico, claiming asylees might bring the virus into detention centers or infect border agents. Trump also has insulted journalists who scrutinize his pandemic response by asking tough questions during daily press briefings and has been utterly silent on the Justice Department’s congressional request to suspend certain constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, Trump began calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” ratcheting up tensions with China and xenophobia in general, stigmatizing Asian-Americans, and playing to his political base. While he has since backed away from that inflammatory language, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has doubled down on his similar “Wuhan Virus” provocations, making a collaborative response from the G7 and UN Security Council virtually impossible.

Long before this pandemic erupted, a multi-year wave of governments cracking down on dissent, flouting international norms, and backtracking from cooperative alliances was disheartening. But now, at a moment when we need a coordinated and transparent global response, the full scale and scope of this democratic erosion comes into view.

The ramifications are deeply alarming. It means we aren’t likely to see the kind of transparent and science-based response needed to truly address the coronavirus. And the “post-Corona world” to which we emerge from seclusion may be so repressive and restrictive that it is unrecognizable. If that’s the case, then the world will have a whole new kind of virus to combat.

IMAGE: A man gets his temperature checked outside a barricade where community members control who comes in and out of a residential street on Feb. 24, 2020 in Beijing, China, one month after Wuhan was put under lockdown to stop the spread of the deadly new coronavirus. Much of China’s capital remained shuttered at the time, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. (Photo by Betsy Joles/ Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Margon

Director of the foreign policy team at Open Society-U.S. Follow her on Twitter (@sarahmargon).