07 April 2020

The coronavirus “infects” the liberal democracy

Sergiu Medar

Applying restrictions for the SARS CoV-2 virus community spread prevention involves the abjuration, on limited time, of some rights offered by the functioning of states’ liberal-democratic principles. Some countries and regimes are using this opportunity, offered by the pandemic crisis, to reach some political objectives, with possibly irreversible effects. The surveillance of these actions and the new functioning principles of states, in the post-pandemic period, must be an intense concern for analysts and structures elaborating strategic studies.

Image source: Mediafax

Stating that after the coronavirus pandemic crisis the world will change is a truism. How the world will look is something no one can argue about. The analysts are, for now, collecting clues to create an image of how this world will look. It is important for the essential irreversible decisions to be avoided during this extremely sensitive period, and only after all the information is collected and processed will allow making conclusions and designing the future.

One of the phenomenons specific for this period is the collision between states’ democratic functioning principles and the autocratic methods imposed by principles and medical solutions on approaching the pandemic.

In the authoritarian states, imposing restrictions of the fundamental democratic rights were not, and are not, something new, so that it did not create many issues for the authorities. People are used with discipline, as well as with the abidance of the democratic rights, in comparison with the states to have a consolidated democracy. The current crisis has become, in some states, an opportunity for the introduction of new control and repression methods.

The authoritarian states are using this opportunity to develop mass surveillance capacities. China, which already had such systems, had the most effective methods to check restrictions’ abidance and especially the ones related to quarantine and home isolation. The lack of transparency of the Chinese government in reporting coronavirus cases has deprived the entire world of the necessary information on creating an antidote for the SARS CoV-2 infection.

Apparently, following a superficial judgement, one may wrongly conclude that autocracy is the key to get over the pandemic. The example people give for such case is China and the fact that it is increasingly spread, having lethal effect in Europe’s liberal democratic states and the US as well. Global Times, the English tabloid of the Chinese Communist Party, hastens to say that, in these countries, pandemics’ effects are the result of the political systems’ decentralization and, therefore, the current Western political system lacks the capacity to organize and mobilize on a large scale.

Even the New York Times was stating that the mortality rate in Europe is bigger than in China because this is “the price you pay for an open society”. This is false. Yes, indeed, the imposed restrictions directly collided with the basic democratic rights: freedom of movement, the lack of segregation after any criteria, including following age’s criteria, the lack of expression and others. However, in the democratic states which have introduced these criteria as prevention for pandemic’s spread, there were no signs of popular protests. On the contrary, in all these countries, the critics the governments experienced were claiming the delay of these restrictive measures and the fact that this lack of immediate reaction was the result of political priorities, in general, and the electoral ones, in particular.

The authoritarian states, but also some democratic ones, have used this opportunity to reach their political goals. During this period, in some of the states, many political personalities will get arrested, many opposition parties will be dissolved, the fundamental democratic rights will be decreased and even some constitution modifications of the lifetime election will be done.

In Russia, the interdiction of organizing protests emerged, not by coincidence, when there were many ongoing legal processes in the Russian state related to constitution’s modification that would allow Putin’s presidential election for the fifth time. A relevant example is that on March 10h, Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobinian, has introduced the interdiction of groups gatherings that are bigger than three people. The second day, Russia’s Parliament voted the 400 amendments which allowed constitution’s modification.

According to Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents, the Israeli prime-minister has closed the courts during his ongoing process wherein he is accused of corruption.  For the surveillance of SARS CoV-2 patients’ localization and the quarantined ones, the prime-minister has authorised the Israeli Security Agency, Shin Bet, to use telephone surveillance technology for people’s movement. This was, until now, dedicated to antiterrorist actions only.

In the US, during the crisis period, president Trump got increased powers. The Justice Department required the US Congress to cancel the public consultations and continue only with those that do not involve the physical presence of a big number of people. The presidential electoral campaign was also affected as there were forbidden the famous public gatherings to choose the democratic member, but also to support the current president. Most of the American people are still unsure about what is going to happen with the presidential elections is the crisis will take longer than expected and will extend up to the 2020 November elections.

Jordan’s government had recently prohibited newspapers’ appearance and the Media Affairs state minister, Amjad Adaileh, stated in a press conference that it increases the “pandemic’s spread”.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliiev, under the pretext of preventing the virus’s spread, has completely closed the opposition’s offices. He mentioned that this measure was not taken for medical reasons, but to protect the citizens because "We cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces, the fifth column, the national traitors, to take advantage of this situation and create any kind of challenge".

The authoritarian Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, expressed a complete lack of transparency, specific to China, in reporting COVID-19 cases that have appeared in the country. The Egyptian leader, who came to power through a coup d'etat, cancelling any freedom of speech right, ordered the arrest of several people accused of spreading rumours about the number of people infected with the pandemic virus, thus affecting national security.

In Hungary, authoritarian leader Viktor Orban used the pretext of community coronavirus spread as an argument for his well-known position on preventing immigrants from entering Hungary, saying his government has found "a clear link between coronavirus and illegal immigration". Although no medical expert has confirmed this, the preacher of European liberalism has not given up his idea. Lately, Orban, using the pandemic crisis, has conferred increased powers that make the transition from authoritarianism to dictatorship. From his prime minister position, he now has the right to issue emergency ordinances without parliament's approval. For others to stay out of his decisions, the Hungarian leader removed the media from the process of political consultation and transparency.

North Korea, by its specific social life, is perhaps the most vulnerable country in the world to coronavirus. Although it is close to two states (China and South Korea), where virus incidence was frequent, the North Korean communist state did not report any deaths until April 3. Kim Jong-Un has long waited for an opportunity to completely isolate the country. The restrictions imposed by blocking the virus’s spread now give the North Korean dictator the motivation to make this decision. The isolation of the entire territory of North Korea also implies the cessation of any diplomatic ties with other states.  

The European Union recognizes that each Member State has its own infrastructure to provide the health of the population. However, there was a need for European directives, for a fair distribution of protective equipment as well as for the establishment of unitary regulations for contamination prevention. The EU has made available to the Member States, through the "Cross-border Health Threat Decision", funds worth 232 million euro for spending related to COVID-19 infections’ prevention and treatments provision. The way these funds were distributed has led to discussions and accusations that Germany and France, again, received the highest shares. The obligations of the European Union, in the field of health insurance for European citizens, were stipulated in the provisions of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, as well as of the 1992 Treaty of Amsterdam. European Commission’s lack of prompt reaction as well as the fact that it left the coordination role to World Health Organization or the bilateral initiatives allowed the pro-Moscow media to already call the European Union dismantled. It will be necessary, among others, in the Union’s reorganization process, to find solutions for such situations ‘intervention.

It is obviously that some states are trying to take advantage of the temporarily accepted limitations of democratic principles to reach their goals. Many times, the totalitarian leaders, dictatorships creators or authoritarians who lead the illiberal democracies want to adopt such measures in an irreversible manner, modifying the constitutions or organic laws. It is essential to track, in the post-pandemic period, how states come back, or not, to the liberal democracies principles and, especially, how they find solutions to that end.

English version by Andreea Soare