The global coronavirus pandemic “has fueled a crisis for democracy across the world,” according to a bracing report, “Democracy under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom,” from the nonpartisan watchdog Freedom House.
Tragically, freedom has been contracting, not expanding, for 14 consecutive years, and the pandemic has resulted in declines in democracy and human rights in 80 nations as governments have responded by “engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very system of accountability needed to protect public health.”
The crackdowns are acute in what Freedom House deems “struggling democracies and highly repressive states — in other words, settings that already had weak safeguards against abuses of power are suffering the most.”
Examples abound, across continents, from Sri Lanka to Cambodia to Belarus and beyond. In Egypt — a U.S. ally — the report reflects that “the military regime has used COVID-19 as an opportunity to further repress political activists, rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and doctors, arresting dozens, denying them basic assistance in places of detention, and placing several on terrorist watch lists.”
The repression takes many forms, some simultaneously, including abuses of power, in which “officials and security services perpetrated violence against civilians, detained people without justification, and overstepped their legal authority.” In fact, some governments used the crisis to grant themselves emergency powers, and then used them to “interfere in the justice system, impose unprecedented restrictions on political opponents, and undermine crucial legislative functions.”
What’s more, mis- and disinformation on the pandemic disseminated by some regimes may only add to the misery — and the mortality. And those who do speak out or report on the pernicious restrictions are often stifled, “making accountability difficult and hampering the dissemination of vital information.”
Governments and citizens, Freedom House asserts, “must recognize that press freedoms and freedom of expression are essential tools for exposing misconduct and assessing the effectiveness of the pandemic response. Public health depends on the protection of these core democratic values.”
And yet the countries that are supposed to project and protect these core democratic values don’t always do so at home, let alone abroad. There have been significant setbacks in media freedoms here in the U.S., for instance, as tracked by Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
“Established democracies could do a much better job in speaking out against some of the abuses that are occurring around the world under the pretext of the pandemic,” Amy Slipowitz, Freedom House’s research manager, told an editorial writer. This includes internet dissent, which is the subject of a separate, but equally concerning Freedom House report, “The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow,” issued on Wednesday.
Among that report’s findings: “State and nonstate actors in many countries are now exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control.”
The timing couldn’t be worse: “The COVID-19 pandemic has really accelerated society’s reliance on digital technologies, but this comes at a time when it is less free,” Slipowitz, the report’s co-author, said.
The pandemic crackdown across so many countries should put America’s domestic debate over mask mandates and other mitigation efforts into context. It’s not tyranny, but responsibility, that’s leading governments to try to slow the spread of a virus that’s costing lives and livelihoods. Indeed, said Slipowitz, “I would put that into perspective and highlight the different restrictions that are happening around the world now and how they are undermining people’s political rights and civil liberties in really severe ways.”
Recognizing and respecting this difference would go a long way toward a more productive, constructive debate here at home.