COVID-19 and the Role of Human Rights

Remarks by Carl Gershman to The Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis but a political crisis as well.  A year ago the National Endowment for Democracy and International IDEA joined together to sponsor the Call to Defend Democracy, a statement signed by over 150 pro-democracy institutions as well as over as well as over 1,000 political and civic leaders around the world, including 13 Nobel Laureates and 62 former heads of government.    The statement expressed alarm that not only were authoritarian regimes using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their political grip, but “even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance without regard to legal constraints, parliamentary oversight, or timeframes for the restoration of constitutional order. Parliaments are being sidelined, journalists are being arrested and harassed, minorities are being scapegoated, and the most vulnerable sectors of the population face alarming new dangers as the economic lockdowns ravage the very fabric of societies everywhere.”  

Freedom House reported in October that the state of democracy and human rights had worsened in 80 countries, and nearly half of the countries in the world has imposed restrictions on the media as part of their response to COVID-19.  Regimes have also used the pandemic to accelerate and deepen the erosion of checks on their power. They have enacted laws and regulations to crack down on protests and opposition groups, stifle freedom of expression, expand executive powers, cancel elections, entrench corrupt and kleptocratic practices, and shrink the space for independent media and civil society.  

In Kazakhstan, for example, the government employed anti-pandemic lockdowns right before demonstrations were scheduled, then lifted them afterwards.  Burma’s military organized a coup and arrested democratically elected leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, under a number of pretexts including allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions.  In Russia, authorities have cited the pandemic when warning against protests in defense of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and in Uganda, officials arrested presidential candidate Bobi Wine for holding unauthorized campaign rallies in defiance of public health protocols.

In Venezuela, a COVID-19 emergency decree in March 2020 authorized the president to take any discretionary measures he deemed necessary and gave the security forces the authority to “take all the necessary provisions” to enforce the decree.   In the first five months of the decree, 1,171 people died at the hands of the security forces, compared to only 259 people who died from COVID-19.  In Hungary the parliament voted Viktor Orban extraordinary powers to rule by decree, a move justified by Covid-19 but also intended to shore up the ruling party’s chances ahead of parliamentary elections.  And in Malaysia an emergency law was invoked allowing Prime Minister  Muhiddin Yassin to bypass Parliament on major decisions, including a recent “fake news” law  making it an offense to publish anything critical of new law or the government’s handling of the pandemic.  COVID-19 hit Malaysia just as the Prime Minister took power in March of last year, and according to a report in The New York Times, the anti-pandemic measures he took enabled him to minimize “opportunities for his opponents to mobilize against him.”

Authorities have also used the pandemic as an excuse to delay national elections. The most widely reported case was in Hong Kong, where the government cited the pandemic as a reason to delay legislative elections by an entire year, a move that was part of Beijing’s broader effort to eliminate Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy.

The pandemic has also provided fertile ground for the expansion of state surveillance using new digital technologies.  As governments turned to digital apps to monitor the spread of the virus, systems lacking in privacy safeguards offered authorities from China to Bahrain a new means of tracking their populations. Iranian authorities claimed an app it introduced could diagnose citizens with COVID-19, but it has been used instead to collect location data on Iranian citizens.  Russia rolled out an extensive facial-recognition system (including over 170,000 cameras) in Moscow last year, allegedly to police those who violate coronavirus protocols. But the system has allowed Russia to use facial recognition surveillance to track and detain many protestors who attend rallies in support of Navalny. 

As noted earlier, the pandemic has also accelerated a global decline in freedom of expression. Restrictions on media and journalists have been enacted in at least 91 countries, often under the guise of fighting “fake news” around the virus. The global spread of laws against “fake news” has accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, with 17 countries adopting legislation of this kind. In addition, India’s authorities recently ordered social media companies to remove dozens of posts criticizing the government’s pandemic response, including from opposition figures. In Egypt, officials have cracked down on free expression and declared that only state outlets produce “real news,” while arresting journalists, doctors, and others for sharing their own information.  In Bangladesh, a cartoonist, a writer, and a whistleblower all face potential life sentences for allegedly spreading misinformation and undermining the state’s image. In China, a citizen journalist in Wuhan, who posted footage at the start of the pandemic of dead bodies being removed from a hospital, has been held for over a year for “stirring up trouble.”

Some governments applied lockdown measures in a discriminatory manner against minority groups.  Muslims in India and Sri Lanka have been accused of being “super-spreaders,” and authorities in Kuwait have reserved the harshest virus restrictions for noncitizen communities. Authorities in Slovakia and Bulgaria quarantined Roma neighborhoods, and Bulgarian authorities imposed police checkpoints around Roma districts.

The increase in international assistance prompted by the pandemic has created new opportunities for corruption. This issue is especially prevalent in the healthcare sector, where rampant embezzlement, cronyism, bribery, and price gouging allow have allowed elites to enrich themselves.  In South Sudan, authorities have been accused of profiting off COVID-19 aid, leaving the country’s healthcare system struggling to respond to the pandemic, while in Paraguay corruption has caused a shortage of medical supplies, severely undercutting government’s ability to respond to the recent COVID-19 surge.   In Bangladesh the journalist Rozina Islam, who has written critical articles about the government’s response to the pandemic, was arrested last month for reporting on corruption in the Ministry of Health. 

Despite the worsening of political conditions in so many different countries, civil societies across the world have mobilized to address the health crisis and counter government abuse.  They have provided trustworthy information to citizens, confronted systemic corruption, and opposed discrimination.  According to Freedom House, though 158 countries have enacted new restrictions on demonstrations and public gatherings, significant protests have taken place in at least 90 countries callings for respect for human rights and for the effective mitigation of the COVID crisis.  

In Colombia, Jordan, and Kazakhstan, protests have emerged against economic insecurity, the mismanagement of the public health crisis, and expanded state authority under the guise of state of emergency laws.  In Thailand, protestors calling for democratic change have continued to gather outside of the Prime Minister’s office to demand his resignation, and in Chile, protests that continued during the pandemic have led to a representative process to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution.

In addition to widespread protests, civil society groups have adapted their work to respond to the pandemic. The crisis has helped crystalize in civil-society networks a sense of urgency and social responsibility. Across Eurasia, citizen-led grassroots organizations are providing services for those in need, and Ukraine’s civil society has mobilized in a manner reminiscent of the spirit of solidarity during the Euromaidan revolution. 

The threat to human rights and democracy goes beyond authoritarian governments using the pandemic to justify increasing state power.  The pandemic has also provided openings for such regimes to advance the idea that their highly centralized systems of government are more effective in dealing with a massive health crisis like COVID-19 than democratic systems.  According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, state actors in Moscow, Beijing, and other authoritarian countries have leveraged public diplomacy, propaganda, and disinformation tools to promote a new battle of narratives based on the idea that their COVID-19 responses are superior to those of Western and other democracies. 

China and Russia have been at the forefront of these foreign disinformation efforts, which have taken a variety of forms. Russia, for example, showcased its Sputnik V vaccine before testing was completed prioritizing politics over safety. Its chief funder and lobbyist, Kirill Dmitriev, boasted that “Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first.” 

Both Russia and China have launched disinformation campaigns to discredit U.S. vaccines.  For example, China’s Global Times ran an article advising Australian health authorities to reconsider the Pfizer vaccine in light of the alleged inoculation-related deaths of some elderly recipients in Norway, a story that Reuters. CNN, and other media (ASD and ASPI) reported was totally false.  Beijing has also used fake social media accounts, state media outlets, and aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy to control narratives around the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan and the regime’s disastrous early response, which allowed the virus to become a pandemic.   The regime has also pressured the World Health Organization to  whitewash its role in the spread of the disease.

China and Russia have also used disinformation to highlight the difficulty democratic countries have had containing the virus and to burnish their own image on the global stage.  A report by the E.U.’s European External Action Service has charged that the so-called “vaccine diplomacy” of Russia and China “follows a zero-sum game logic and is combined with disinformation and manipulation efforts to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, E.U. institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies.” 

In addition, Beijing has used its vaccines, ineffective as they are widely thought to be, as an opportunity to pursue political goals, such as undermining Taiwan’s status in the world. Honduras and Paraguay have both reportedly been offered vaccines on the condition that they no longer recognize Taiwan, and Guyana terminated an agreement for Taiwan to open a representative office its capital when it was offered an increased vaccine supply. For the same reason Brazil reversed its position to shun Huawei’s participation in building the country’s 5G wireless network, and Beijing pressured Turkey to sign an extradition treaty targeting Uyghur refugees by delaying for two weeks a shipment of vaccines. 

The U.S. should respond to Beijing’s cynical pressure tactics by offering a positive plan for helping countries around the world end the pandemic.  Senator Ben Sasse wrote recently that “Washington is late to vaccine diplomacy but not too late.”  I agree with his view that there is “a once-in-a generation opportunity to show the world what US leadership looks like.”  With bold action now, he urges, we can make the point that while “Covid-19 came from China,” the most effective vaccines against it come from the United States.  While Beijing uses the offer of vaccines politically and charges “astronomical prices for garbage vaccines,” America can “vaccinate a billion people around the globe. It’s going to take work and investment,” Sasse says, but “the administration should make vaccine diplomacy the State Department’s top budget priority and begin working with pharmaceutical companies” to make this happen.  In addition to saving hundreds of thousands of lives, we will be sending the message that while Beijing’s totalitarian system of “state-sponsored mismanagement, deception and coercion has shown itself to be not only a failure, but a failure big enough to infect the globe,” the U.S., in contrast, is here to help with vaccines that work.  The opportunity is there, and it is one that   the U.S. should seize in a bipartisan way with traditional American idealism and hopefulness.  If we do so, it would be a cure not just for the pandemic but for our own division and pessimism about the future of our country.

The COVID-19 crisis has posed severe challenges to democracy and human rights. It has intensified democratic backsliding, fueled repression, and created new openings for malign authoritarian influence. Yet the resilience of human rights defenders, civil society activists, and independent media in the face of immense repression offers reason for hope. So does our own country’s potential to help the world recover from this devastating pandemic and, in the process, contribute to the renewal of democracy here and abroad.  

The Call to Defend Democracy closed by saying that “authoritarians around the world see the COVID-19 crisis as a new political battleground in their fight to stigmatize democracy as feeble” and doomed to perish.  But the future need not be that dark.  If the people who care about democracy can summon the will, discipline, and solidarity to defend it, this is a battle that can be won.  We have no choice but to do so.