Pandemic Ploys: March 7, 2022


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.

Share on Facebook Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter Share on Twitter
Forward to Friend Forward to Friend


  • While the speed at which COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed around the world is unprecedented, vaccine hesitancy and a lack of infrastructure have hindered progress in Brazil and across Africa, respectively.
  • A report by the International Press Institute and the Media Freedom Rapid Response revealed that over a quarter of all European media freedom violations in 2021 were linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The omicron variant is tearing through Afghanistan, as the country’s population descends into poverty and healthcare institutions are ill-equipped to respond to the crisis following the Taliban’s return to power.

Image Credit: AJP /

the pandemic’s impact on women around the world

The status of women is the status of democracy,” as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said in her 2021 speech to the United Nation’s 65th Commission on the Status of Women. Indeed, gender equality—which is correlated with democratic strengthbolsters governance institutions and civil society; heightens receptivity to citizen needs; and facilitates cooperation. Moreover, inclusive, long-lasting systems of democracy hinge upon women’s equality and participation. Yet, with the commemoration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Harris’ statement should serve not just a value statement but a warning. The COVID-19 crisis has endangered women’s economic agency, political participation, and safety—posing a critical threat to democratic integrity.

The pandemic created barriers for political participation. The Carnegie Endowment identified a series of threats to women’s political inclusion in ten countries:  heightened barriers to entry for female candidates due to economic strain; informal practices and structures which reinforce male dominance in politics; exclusion from or harassment on digital platforms; and fewer women in political positions. Pandemic-era instability, among other factors, also exacerbated the threat of violence against women activists in conflict-affected areas. According to the UNHRC, at least 35 women human rights advocates, journalists, and trade unionists were killed in 2020—an increase from figures in the preceding two years.

The virus’ impact on women workers was immediate, severe and widespread. Women workers comprise a disproportionate share of employees in informal sectors (employees who are not registered, don’t pay taxes, and/or don’t maintain bank accounts), fewer social protectionsand industries hit hardest by the virus. The coronavirus also exacerbated barriers to entry or advancement in the workplace: lower rates of employment, lower wages, and less prominent positions within organizations. In Kenya, for example, just over half of working women lost their employment in the spring of 2020. This surge in unemployment further increased gender disparities in caregiving responsibilities worldwide. It also led to a rise in trafficking and sexual extortion. Moreover, girls comprise the majority of schoolchildren who will not resume their education once the pandemic subsides; in that regard, UNESCO estimated that up to 11 million girls will not return to school. As UN Women explained, economic empowerment increases women’s participation and sway in international institutions and is crucial to achieving gender equality.

Domestic violence rates increased over the course of the health crisis, comprising a “Shadow Pandemic.” A series of interconnected factors bred what one activist labeled the “perfect storm for abuse:” lockdowns, economic insecurity, anxiety over the virus, and increased alcohol consumption. For example, Italian authorities saw a 73 percent increase in calls to a national anti-violence number in less than two months and, in Mexico, the number of women seeking safety in domestic violence shelters quadrupled. According to the World Health Organization, domestic or gender-based violence constitutes a threat to human rights and can precipitate socio-economic exclusion that has no place in a democracy with equal protections.

As UNESCO’s Valentine M. Moghadam asserted, “women may need democracy in order to flourish, but the converse is also true: democracy needs women if it is to be an inclusive, representative, and enduring system of government.”

– Ariane Gottlieb, Program Assistant, International Forum for Democratic Studies



Canada’s Trucker Protests Against COVID-19 Measures: Foreign influence campaigns have buoyed protests over vaccine mandates that originated in Canada but have since spread to the United States, Belgium, France, and New Zealand, among others. According to officials at Meta, Facebook groups promoting American convoys have been linked to overseas content mills, and have been removed for violating the platform’s policies. Meanwhile, Canadian authorities revoked a controversial expansion of emergency powers granted to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Wailing Wall Wishes on the Second Anniversary of Dr. Li Wenliang’s Death (China Digital Times): Last month marked the second anniversary of Dr. Li Wenliang’s death from COVID-19. Li was a Wuhan doctor who sounded the alarm about COVID-19 and was subsequently targeted by PRC authorities for his advocacy. Netizens subsequently memorialized Li on his Weibo page, in what became known as “China’s Wailing Wall.” Despite CCP’s censorship, the page is still active two years later.


What the World Got Right During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Vox): A new report by the Center for Global Development, “COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Rollout in Historical Perspective,” noted that the global COVID-19 vaccination campaign has progressed with unprecedented speed. Thus far, almost 62 percent of the world’s population has received at least one vaccine dose. However, the vast majority of vaccines have gone to residents in middle- and high-income countries, with only 10 percent of residents in low-income countries having received one inoculation.

Africa CDC to Ask World to Pause Vaccine Donations (Politico): After initially not having enough doses to supply countries with COVID-19 vaccines, Africa’s CDC is requesting countries halt their vaccine donations and instead address distribution and hesitancy challenges. John Nkengasong, who serves as the director for Africa’s Centers for Disease Control and prevention, claimed that supply is no longer the “main barrier” to vaccination and instead, there is greater need to solve issues related to cold storage capacity, vaccination sites, and critical supplies. In addition, vaccine hesitancy is a major challenge, due to misinformation and public distrust in government.



New COVID Surge Batters Afghanistan’s Crumbling Health Care (Associated Press): The omicron variant of the coronavirus is tearing through Afghanistan, and the country’s health care system has been decimated by the worsening humanitarian crisis and the Taliban’s return to power. Earlier this month, Afghanistan witnessed nearly a 50 percent positivity rate, indicating an extremely high transmission rate. (Only 27 percent of the country has been vaccinated.) Some reports estimate almost 90 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty and nearly all medical employees have been working without pay.

In Hong Kong, China’s “COVID Zero” Strategy is Falling Apart (Washington Post): The spread of the omicron variant in Hong Kong poses a unique challenge for the CCP in its efforts to continue China’s “zero covid” policy. Although Hong Kong has thus far avoided severe restrictions, as the omicron variant sweeps the island, Hong Kong’s leaders have ordered compulsory COVID-19 testing for all residents, causing panic among residents who fear a strict lockdown. Should PRC officials seek to pressure Hong Kong into rolling out further restrictions, they might face resistance from the city’s residents who are suspicious of China’s efforts to solidify its control over the city.



Facebook Whistleblower Alleges Executives Misled Investors About Climate and Covid Hoaxes in New SEC Complaints (Washington Post): Citing internal documents, the complaint alleges that Facebook misled investors about the prevalence of misleading COVID content on the platform. One document, for instance, showed user reports of false or misleading content, including COVID-19 misinformation, rising by 20 percent in April 2020. The complaint was filed alongside another making similar charges about climate change misinformation.

Vaccine Passports Can Be Used for Surveillance Under the Guise of Public Health Measures (The Conversation): Digital passports verifying COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test result remain a subject of controversy, with some countries introducing them even as others discontinue their use. Two researchers at McGill University argue for keeping the information contained in passport platforms to a minimum (for instance, name, date of birth, and vaccination information). In their view, apps—like Hong Kong’s “Health Code”—that also collect travel, phone, and other data could enable political repression.



“COVID-19 Pushed Me to Leave the Philippines” (Rappler): In 2020, the Philippine government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted over 2 million Filipino workers to migrate out of the country in search of job opportunities. In a new Rappler investigation, five migrant Filipinos in various industries share their stories about navigating pandemic-related lockdowns, capturing the unique emotional, economic, and physical hardships migrant workers face in a foreign country.

Mapping Media Freedom: Monitoring Report – 2021 (Media Freedom Rapid Response): The International Press Institute and the Media Freedom Rapid Response published their 2021 report on the status of media freedom in Europe, which catalogued 626 incidents across EU Member states, with many linked to reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Alerts were categorized by the type of attack, the aggressor, and the location in which the incident happened.



Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Journal of Democracy released a piece on Ukraine by Michael McFaul and Robert Person entitled “What Putin Fears Most,” which examined how Ukraine’s determination and commitment to democracy is the true precursor to Russia’s invasion. NED Board Member Anne Applebaum published an article in The Atlantic entitled “Calamity Again” which explains how Russia’s effort to erase Ukraine and its identity is reminiscent of other historical campaigns in the country’s history.  In addition, for the International Forum’s Digital Directions newsletter, Daniel Cebul and Elizabeth Kerley write on how Russia is using disinformation to muddy the information space in Ukraine.

Power 3.0 Blog: Read the two latest editions to the Forum’s Power 3.0 blog! Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, University of Notre Dame professor Michael Coppedge considers how countries’ democratic or illiberal norms can travel across borders and impact regional governance in “Democracy and Autocracy are Contagious.” Additionally, in “On Thin Ice: How the World’s Companies can be Censored by Authoritarians,” Rachelle Faust analyzes how authoritarian actors manipulate narratives and induce censorship in the global private sector.


Thanks for reading Pandemic Ploys, a biweekly newsletter from the International Forum.

Sign up for future editions here!

International Forum's Website