Pandemic Ploys: December 15, 2021


Understanding authoritarian manipulation and democratic responses during the COVID-19 pandemic. A curated newsletter from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. If you enjoy this newsletter, forward it to a friend or share it on social media so that others can subscribe.

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  • Amid critical challenges to democracy over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent Summit for Democracy highlighted key strategies with which stakeholders can bolster democratic resilience.
  • Many low-income countries lack the capacity to distribute donated vaccine doses, creating another obstacle in the effort to rapidly and equitably allocate vaccines around the world.
  • Recent reports by CEPA and CSIS ChinaPower analyze Beijing’s effort to improve perceptions of China and dispel criticism of the country’s response to the pandemic.


Image Credit: “The Pandemic’s Impact on Global Democracy,” from Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, “Democracy Under Siege: Freedom in the World 2021,” Freedom House, 2021,

Amid COVID-Era Challenges, Opportunities to Strengthen Democratic Resilience Following the Summit for Democracy

Last week, the Biden Administration held the 2021 Summit for Democracy with representatives from over 100 countries in attendance. Bringing together leaders, activists, and human rights defenders from around the world, the Summit centered on opportunities to achieve three goals: strengthening democracy and countering authoritarianism; combatting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights. Amid the critical challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to democratic integrity, these goals could not be more timely. The world has witnessed significant regression in the realms of civil rights and political liberties, as Freedom HouseInternational IDEA, and other organizations have documented. Despite an increase in COVID-19 vaccine availability, neither the virus nor these potential vulnerabilities to democratic integrity will disappear anytime soon. The world’s democracies thus have an urgent responsibility to fight the pandemic and bolster democratic resilience, while at the same time implementing the Summit’s critical objectives.

Strengthening democracy and countering authoritarianism

The COVID-19 pandemic has weakened democracy and global freedom, and has provided ammunition for authoritarian actors to expand their power and influence. President of Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly Silvia Hernández Sánchez remarked at the Summit for Democracy “The [COVID-19] pandemic has exacerbated existing cracks in democracies around the world, from gross inequalities that translated into power imbalances … to low trust in institutions.” As a recent survey from the Pew Research Center outlined, those who believe their country has managed the COVID 19 pandemic poorly are more likely to feel dissatisfied with the state of their democracy. Yet, throughout the pandemic, several democracies have shown how to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis through openness, transparency, and accountabilitySuccessful COVID-related responses from democracies include clear and transparent communication to the public; rapid deployment of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing; and temporary, proportionate restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. These responses build greater trust in government and strengthen the effectiveness of democratic governance.

Combatting corruption

To respond to the coronavirus, many countries rushed procurement processesweakened anti-corruption bodies, and restricted political and civil rights. These decisions have allowed space for corruption and kleptocracy to flourish. The pandemic has been especially detrimental to the livelihoods of those who have been denied basic public services, while corrupt leaders have enriched themselves with pandemic relief funds intended for their populaces. A lack of transparency, mismanagement of resources, and little accountability have rendered pandemic related public health and economic responses ineffective, allowing greater room for corrupt regimes to undermine democracy and human rights. On the other hand, public health concerns can be a powerful catalyst to encourage strong reforms in key areas such as anti-corruption and good governance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s summit remarks elaborated on the Biden Administration’s “U.S. Strategy to Counter Corruption,” emphasizing the need to crack down on illicit financial flows in the United States and called for other democracies to follow suit and address corruption in light of recent democratic backsliding accelerated by the pandemic.

Promoting respect for human rights

The COVID-19 pandemic has made threats against human rights more acute. In his recent op-ed in USA Today, Secretary Blinken wrote, “leaders have seized the opportunity to crush freedom of assembly and crank up surveillance” against civil society and democratic activists. Human rights defenders, journalists, and activists have been detained and punished for criticizing their government’s responses to the pandemic, including in several countries invited to the Summit. Following the Summit, democracies must build awareness to the dangers of a shrinking civic space and advocate for further protections for free expression, data privacy, and independent journalism. Democracies also need to support and defend the work of the human rights defenders that are holding regimes accountable for their failures in responding to the COVID-19 crisis and other challenges to democratic principles. As Damon Wilson, President and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy, remarked at the summit, democracies need to “draw on the strength, resilience, and determination of courageous activists to regain our footing and rebuild democratic momentum.”

The Summit for Democracy was not just a warning bell about the democratic vulnerabilities that the pandemic has exposed. It also provided new ways for democracies to highlight their advantages in countering the pandemic through transparency, accountable, and effective means.

– Ryan Arick, Assistant Program Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies



Russia and China Shape Global Narratives about COVID-19: Two reports analyze the PRC’s pandemic-era information operations. Writing for the Center for European Policy Analysis, Edward Lucas, Ben Dubow, and Jake Morris argue that the CCP largely aims to laud its pandemic management efforts, although Beijing also criticizes other countries’ public health responses and stances towards China (somewhat paralleling Russia’s playbook). The Center for Strategic and International Studies ChinaPower Project’s report, “Is China Succeeding at Shaping Global Narratives about Covid-19?” further demonstrates how the CCP looks to deflect blame for the outbreak, by making false claims about the virus’ origins, among other tactics. The CCP hopes to bolster perceptions of the country and its model of governance. Yet, while assessments of the country’s pandemic response have somewhat improved, unfavorable views of China are nevertheless at a historic high.

Iran’s COVID-19 Deaths ‘2.5 Times Higher’ than Health Ministry Numbers (Atlantic Council): Having already suffered more deaths than any other Middle Eastern country, Iran is now likely facing a sixth wave of the coronavirus. Throughout the pandemic, officials in Tehran frequently based public health responses off ideological and/or political agendas, as seen with the cover up of the outbreak in Qom in 2020 as well as Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban on vaccines produced in the United States or United Kingdom. Moreover, analysis of Iran’s excess mortality rate reveals that the true fatality count from the virus is likely far higher than official figures suggest.



Only a Truly Global Vaccination Campaign Will End the Pandemic (World Politics Review): With coronavirus infections on the rise once again around the world, Columbia University’s Howard French calls for a comprehensive global vaccination campaign. Vaccines must be made accessible to all regions rapidly and simultaneously, yet French argues that wealthier countries’ sense of urgency for a worldwide vaccination rollout declined as their own citizenries received inoculations. French asserts that key international players must prioritize vaccine distribution over geopolitical rivalries or corporate profit. Despite COVAX’s January 2021 objective to distribute 2.3 billion vaccines before the year’s end, the group will fall well short of its initial goal.

The Next Big Bottleneck in the Global Vaccination Effort (Axios): Many low-income countries lack the means to distribute donated vaccines rapidly, creating an additional obstacle in the global vaccination effort. Challenges in this regard include a lack of equipment or labor, the inability to transport and store vaccines (especially those which must be kept at low temperatures), and insufficient logistical planning. This trend is particularly evident in Africa, where approximately 40 percent of delivered vaccine doses have not been distributed. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, while approximately half of the world has received at least one vaccine dose, only 4 percent of residents in low-income countries have had their first shot.



Perspectives | How ADB’s Pandemic Aid to Uzbekistan was Misused, Whistleblower Silenced (EurasiaNet): Since the pandemic’s outset, several whistleblowers in Uzbekistan have criticized the country’s Anti-Crisis Fund for its lack of transparency and oversight. A recent report by CEE Bankwatch Network corroborates these claims. Companies with ties to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the mayor of Tashkent were granted the largest contracts to build medical facilities. Furthermore, officials used funds for purposes not related to medical care in regions that lack adequate health infrastructure. Uzbek authorities have attempted to stifle such criticism, as was seen with the surveillance, arrest, and brutal beating of one whistleblower, Miraziz Bazarov. Multilateral institutions such as the IMF must take steps to ensure that COVID-19 assistance is allocated properly and transparently, as Elsa Peraldi outlined in the Power 3.0 blog.

North Korea is Addressing the Pandemic in its ‘Style.’ That Means Leaving a lot of People Hungry (Washington Post): North Korea, which enacted some of the most restrictive COVID-era border control measures in the world, is now contending with a severe economic crisis. In 2020, the country experienced an 80 percent decline in trade with the PRC. This decrease in trade—alongside sanctions, flooding, and other factors—has exacerbated food insecurity. Although the long-term impact of this crisis on the regime’s stability is not yet known, Andrew Yeo predicts that much will depend on Kim Jong-un’s ability to assert control over domestic markets as they re-emerge. Yeo further analyzes the intersection of authoritarian rule and economic change in his book, State, Society, and Markets in North Korea.

Myanmar’s [Burma’s] Suu Kyi Convicted in Further Blow to Democracy (Associated Press): In Burma, ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was convicted for purportedly spreading false and inflammatory information on Facebook and allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions. Critics and NGOs alike have decried her recent arrest as politically motivated. The military—which has been widely accused of unilaterally seizing power earlier this year—claims that their takeover was justified due to voter fraud in the 2020 election. Independent voting monitors, however, did not detect any such irregularities.



Singapore’s Tech-Utopia Dream Is Turning into a Surveillance State Nightmare (Rest of World): Earlier this year, revelations that police had access to data from Singapore’s TraceTogether COVID-19 app drew global concern. New analysis from Peter Guest underscores how the burden of digital tracking systems fell particularly hard on Singapore’s migrant workers, who were subject  to mandatory use of the app early on and faced strict digital limits on their movements. While expanded high-tech surveillance in Singapore as elsewhere had an outsized impact on marginalized groups, authorities’ experiments in this area have implications for the broader population as well. Among experts, Guest finds a “general acceptance that [new COVID-19 surveillance measures] are now permanent, political tools.”

Facing Up to the Digital Divide: The COVID-19 pandemic sped up the digitization of public service provision, yet digital access has not always kept pace with this rapid transformation. In rural areas of India, for instance, digitization in the health and transportation sectors placed new strains on women workers with limited internet access. In Africa, gaps in digital inclusion for persons with disabilities have hindered access to work and political participation, as well as critical information about the pandemic. The digital divide is raising access concerns globally as public authorities implement digital vaccine certificates, alongside other digital health solutions. To shape a more participatory and equitable future, civil society analysts continue to underscore the need to overcome accessibility gaps within and across countries.



Grants for Digital Media in Latin America Soar in Three Years and Grow with Pandemic, Study Says (LatAm Journalism Review): SembraMedia, a partner of NED’s Center for International Media Assistance, recently published the Inflection Point International report, which documents how independent digital media has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding from grant-making organizations helped shield these groups from experiencing large financial losses compared to larger media outlets. Organizations also diversified their funding sources over the same period, which has acted as a stabilizing force in this field. Although this development has prompted concerns that organizations could become overly dependent on funding from grants, revenue from readers has increased from 5 percent to 10 percent between 2016 and 2020.

Viral Vendetta: Inside the Conspiratorial Movement Waging a Cross-Platform ‘Psychological Warfare’ Campaign Against Covid-19 Vaccine Advocates (Graphika): Recently, Graphika released a report detailing the origin, structure, and activities of Viral Vendetta (or the V_V movement), an online group which disseminates conspiracy theories and disinformation related to the pandemic. The populist movement merges both anti-authoritarian sentiment with health mis- and disinformation, aiming to fight purported “medical Nazism.” Members of V_V use social media to harass health officials, attack COVID-19 health measures, and spread disinformation.



Sharp Power Research Portal: In anticipation of the 2021 Summit for Democracy, the International Forum recently launched the Sharp Power Research Portal, a digital resource analyzing corrosive authoritarian influence in five key sectors: media and information, commerce, culture and entertainment, knowledge generation (universities, think tanks, and more), and emerging technology. The Portal features an interactive map and research repository with over 750 resources in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic. Nearly 80 resources pertain to the COVID-19 virus, illuminating the ways in which authoritarian societies have manipulated the pandemic to advance their sharp power activities.

For additional analyses on sharp power, watch the Forum’s recent discussion on “Resisting Sharp Power” featuring insights from civil society, read the latest edition to the Power 3.0 blog, or listen to ChinaPower Podcast’s “China’s Sharp Power” with the International Forum’s Kevin Sheives and Jessica Ludwig.

Eighteenth Annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture: On December 1, the International Forum hosted the Eighteenth Annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture, featuring the Citizen Lab’s Ronald Deibert. In his keynote speech, “Digital Subversion: The Threat to Democracy,” Deibert detailed how the proliferation of surveillance technology has enabled malign actors to suppress dissent, posing a critical threat to global democratic integrity. The event also featured Eileen Donahoe of the Global Digital Policy Incubator and Ambassador Kirsten Hillman of Canada to the United States, as well as Damon Wilson and Christopher Walker from the National Endowment for Democracy. More information on the annual Lipset Lecture can be found here.


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