Pandemic Ploys: November 2, 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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  • Russia offered to supply hundreds of millions of doses to the COVAX initiative despite not having approval from the WHO, even as institutional mistrust has resulted in a stalled domestic vaccination campaign.
  • While officials in El Salvador and Cuba respectively restrict gatherings and crack down on protestors, a report by Amnesty International details how the suppression of methods of free expression is exacerbating public health challenges.
  • As government kleptocrats embezzle state funds and emergency relief assistance to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Elsa Peraldi proposes steps to ensure accountability and good governance in the latest submission to the Power 3.0 blog.
Image Credit: SkazovD /

Brazilian Responses to Bolsonaro’s Manipulation of the Pandemic

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the severity of the crisis, leaving the country vulnerable to the public health threat. He spread mis- and disinformation about COVID-19, comparing it to a mild flu and pushing false treatments. In public, Bolsonaro refused to wear masks and routinely attended mass rallies without enforcing proper public health measures. After facing an impeachment inquiry from Brazil’s lawmakers earlier this year, a Senate panel reviewed the Bolsonaro administration’s response to the pandemic and recommended charges against the president and over 70 others for “crimes against humanity,” describing the president as the “main person responsible” for the blunders in responding to the pandemic, which has killed over 600,000 Brazilians. Despite the severe consequences of the pandemic, the public health crisis has demonstrated how democratic institutions in Brazil serve as safeguards against increasingly illiberal attempts under Bolsonaro to weaken democracy.

While Bolsonaro has made Brazil vulnerable to the virus, he has also jeopardized the country’s democratic institutions. Bolsonaro, whose videos were pulled from social media for making misleading statements about COVID-19 treatments and claimed the virus could be linked to biological warfare, has made incendiary comments about his opponents and the country’s democratic institutions. Bolsonaro dismissed several officials who might have checked his authoritarian impulses and held him accountable, including Brazil’s defense minister, several health ministers, and high-ranking military officials. In addition, Brazil’s Supreme Court opened investigations into Bolsonaro and his associates for the government’s pandemic response, the president’s weaponization of the federal police force for his personal gain, and for spreading false information around the electoral system. This legal action led the president to launch attacks on the country’s top judicial body, threatening the justice system with something they don’t want to happen if the investigations were not ended. In the lead up to the country’s 2022 general elections, President Bolsonaro has threatened to refuse to accept the election results if he loses, based on inaccurate claims of voter fraud, and claimed that his only three options are death, prison, or victory.”

Together, these instances demonstrate Bolsonaro’s increasingly authoritarian attitude and disregard for the country’s institutions. Although these challenges are not new, the public health emergency has allowed Bolsonaro to corrode democratic institutions and amass power while failing to craft a pandemic response. But Brazilian civil society hasn’t given up. Earlier this year, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and called for an expanded vaccination rollout and heightened virus response measures. While the threat of democratic backsliding remains real, Brazil’s civil society and independent media have proven resilient in holding political institutions and President Jair Bolsonaro accountable for their actions. They have leveraged the institutions surrounding Bolsonaro—the courts, the Congress, media, and political parties—to uphold democratic principles that Bolsonaro might endanger. Strengthening these long-held institutions can be a strong antidote to illiberal leaders’ attempts to use the virus as an excuse to undermine democratic practice.

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

The W.H.O. Names a 26-Member Advisory Group to Study the Origins of the Pandemic (New York Times): The group will further scrutinize two theories regarding the virus’ origins: zoonic transfer from bats and a possible laboratory leak (scientists have deemed the latter to be very unlikely, albeit possible). Questions regarding the virus’ origins have been a source of geopolitical controversy, as the PRC seeks to dispel the notion that the disease originated in Wuhan. To that end, Beijing is likely to continue limiting the WHO’s efforts to conduct research in China.

Russia’s ‘Post-Truth’ Approach to the Pandemic Has Backfired (World Politics Review): From the outset of the pandemic, the Russian government has used disinformation and propaganda to exaggerate its alleged progress in mitigating the coronavirus and discredit responses in Western countries. Nevertheless, inconsistent public health messaging and the rollout of the Sputnik V vaccine before sufficient testing was completed has created widespread mistrust among the Russian populace. After being the first vaccine launched in August 2020, fewer than one in three Russians are fully vaccinated, residents seldom wear masks or practice other health precautions, and conspiracy theories run rampant. Infection rates and deaths continue to climb; state data indicate that over 220,000 Russians have died, although one independent demographer estimates that the true fatality count could be more than 750,000.

Russia’s Sputnik Backer Pushes for Its Use in UN’s Global Vaccine-Distribution Program (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty): The Russian Direct Investment Fund has said that it will supply two to three hundred million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine to the COVAX initiative, a WHO program to distribute vaccines to low-income countries. COVAX, however, can only accept vaccines that have been granted WHO approval, which Sputnik has yet to receive. Although an official with Russia’s sovereign fund estimated the WHO will approve the vaccines within two months, WHO officials have yet to commit to a timetable. Separate from COVAX, Russia has secured agreements to export Sputnik V to seventy countries, although some governments have faced difficulties obtaining second doses in a timely manner. Sputnik V also ran into another roadblock in Europe, after the EU’s European Medicines Agency delayed its approval decision to next year because of missing clinical data about the vaccines.

Corruption Harms Relief Efforts in Africa: Hospitals in Zimbabwe lack the funds necessary to address healthcare needs during the pandemic. Yet, according to one investigative journalist, government officials sold PPE at above market rates—leaving healthcare workers without necessary protective equipment—and cracked down on those investigating financial or human rights abuses. Additionally, in Angola, corrupt state officials stole oil profits which could otherwise have been directed towards the country’s pandemic response. Meanwhile, the Angolan populace has struggled to obtain COVID tests and other critical health services. The report by Opening Central Africa explained “citizens are left to [fend] for themselves. And, still, kleptocrats have a freeway.”

Silenced and Misinformed: Freedom of Expression in Danger During Covid-19 (Amnesty International): A report by Amnesty International details how government attacks on freedom of expression have contributed to misinformation and lack of reliable public health information, likely exacerbating the pandemic’s toll. Some tactics utilized during the pandemic include emergency legislation that attacked independent media through censorship and “false news” laws, allowing authorities to target government critics frequently. These developments, combined with the spread of mis- and disinformation on social media, created a dire situation in which independent journalists and watchdogs are unable to obtain accurate health information and publish their findings.

Illiberal Actors Crack Down on Protests in Latin America: According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, hundreds of protestors in Cuba were detained, many of whom were subsequently beaten, deprived of sleep, and brutally interrogated, among other abuses. In El Salvador, the country’s legislature enacted a ban on mass gatherings following a series of demonstrations denouncing the president’s recent efforts to consolidate control over government institutions and adopt bitcoin as legal tender. Although this law was ostensibly passed to curb the coronavirus’ spread, opposition figures noted that exceptions were made for sports and cultural gathering —other potential super-spreader events. El Salvador is one of many states in which illiberal actors have suppressed public assembly and restricted protests, limiting freedom of expression and civic participation severely under the guise of safeguarding public health.

Contact Tracing—Use and Impact: According to a report by Access Now and the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, EU states do not appear to have leveraged these apps to surveil the population en masse or clamp down on dissent. Yet the report identified three shortcomings in the rollout of contact tracing apps in Europe: a lack of meaningful public dialogue; failure to consult with experts and data protection authorities; and inadequate transparency around the details of the apps being purchased or developed. Uptake of contact tracing apps was higher in countries where authorities held open debates about these apps and shared source code with the public, helping to build trust. Citizen Lab’s Irene Poetranto and Lotus Ruan argue that some of the more aggressive approaches to digital contact tracing do raise the specter of governments “extending public health measures to digitally track the locations and biometric data of citizens.” They argue that accountability and oversight measures concerning data privacy and security are vital to averting such “mission creep.”

Facebook Froze as Anti-Vaccine Comments Swarmed Users (Associated Press): Recently leaked documents reportedly show that executives at Facebook turned down or delayed implementing internal proposals to counter COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. A study by Facebook researchers found that selecting vaccine posts to show to users based on trustworthiness rather than on engagement—likes, dislikes, comments, and reshares—decreased the appearance of posts containing debunked information. It also boosted content from public health authorities such as the WHO. According to AP, Facebook was slow to both the study’s recommendations and a proposal remove the comment section on vaccine-related posts. Analysts such as Ron Deibert and Nathalie Maréchal have long emphasized that Facebook’s content curation algorithm, in keeping with the demands of the targeted advertising business model, prioritizes the posts that garner the most engagement, consequently amplifying polarizing content.

Reimagining Civic Space for Hope and Embracing Change for a Better Civic Space (OpenGlobalRights): In a two-part post, Tom Gerald Daly discusses the challenges facing civil society in light of the pandemic, and how civic actors have responded. In Reimagining Civic Space for Hope,” Daly discusses how governments have taken advantage of the crisis to restrict civil liberties that are critical to democratic participation, such as those of movement and assembly, in order to capture civic spaces. Subsequently, Daly discusses how activists have fought back to reclaim a shifting civic space in Embracing Change for a Better Civic Space.” Civil society and activists have adopted new, innovative tactics to respond to these threats increasingly turning to digital activism, social media, and other technological tools to avoid imprisonment and better organize protests, both online and in-person.

Webinar: Economic and Programmatic Implications for the Covid-19 Vaccine Roll Out in Africa (Center for Global Development, CGD): An event held by the Health Economics Unit (HEU) at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and the Center for Global Development, (CGD) discussed how modelling can inform vaccine strategies on the African continent. The event is part of a larger campaign to encourage public conversation about the essential role of Health Economics and “evidence-based priority-setting” in responding to the pandemic. Given the lack of vaccine production capabilities in Africa, the panelists argued that policymakers must prioritize their countries’ limited resources and require sufficient data to distribute resources most effectively.

Blank Check: How Weak Multilateral Lending Standards Enable and Strengthen Kleptocracy (Power 3.0): In the latest Power 3.0 blogpost, Elsa Peraldi detailed how corrupt state officials embezzled much needed COVID-19 assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral financial institutions. Although the IMF adopted an accountability framework in 2018, the organization is currently unable to ensure that such emergency relief loans are allocated properly. Furthermore, Peraldi reviews how corrupt governments use insufficient or half hearted anticorruption measures as a means of reputation laundering. In response to these challenges, the author suggests that the IMF collaborate with stakeholders in civil society to ensure that state actors abide by measures designed to combat corruption and safeguard good governance.

The Journal of Democracy released the October 2021 issue, featuring former Ambassador Michael McFaul on “Russia’s Road to Autocracy” and Journal of Democracy founding coeditor Marc F. Plattner on former National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman’s legacy. The issue is available free of charge until November 19 on Project Muse.

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Correction: An earlier version of this digital newsletter incorrectly attributed the story “The W.H.O. Names a 26-Member Advisory Group to Study the Origins of the Pandemic” to the Guardian.

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