As most governments around the world confront the unprecedented scale of the coronavirus crisis and what they need to do to protect their citizens and economies, dozens of others are seizing on the moment as an opportunity to crack down and consolidate their power.
Authoritarian leaders from Belarus to Venezuela have all looked to take advantage of the outbreak and the ensuing chaos to give themselves extraordinary new powers, while elections get delayed or forced to go ahead, depending on what suits the incumbent rulers. Security forces have been empowered to conduct brutal crackdowns, free speech has been censored, privacy has been eroded.
“Governments around the world, whether they're full-blown authoritarian, like China and Russia, or countries that are on the cusp of becoming less free, places like Hungary and the Philippines, are exploiting the crisis to expand their power and undermine human rights,” Allie Funk, a research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House, told VICE News. “And as the pandemic gets worse and reaches a bunch of other countries in the global south, [we’ll see] that this is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Western countries are also grappling with the need to loosen restrictions on privacy in order to track the spread of coronavirus through surveillance apps that in normal times would be outrageous.
As the true global nature of the crisis was laid bare last month, U.N. human rights experts warned world leaders not to exploit the moment.
“To prevent such excessive powers to become hardwired into legal and political systems, restrictions should be narrowly tailored and should be the least intrusive means to protect public health,” the experts said, adding: “We encourage States to remain steadfast in maintaining a human rights-based approach to regulating this pandemic, in order to facilitate the emergence of healthy societies with rule of law and human rights protections,” the U.N. experts said.
Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of 30 countries that haven’t heeded the U.N.’s warning:
Russia: A lot of countries have introduced tracking and surveillance mechanisms to try and stop the spread of coronavirus, but Vladimir Putin’s plan takes things to a whole new level. The combined monitoring system would pull in data from (takes a deep breath): location tracking apps, CCTV cameras with facial recognition, QR codes, mobile phone data, and credit card records. The Kremlin is preparing to release the new plans early next week. An opposition party has already labeled the measures a “cyber-gulag” warning that the restrictions will remain in force even after the pandemic ends.
Cambodia: Hun Sen’s emergency bill is a “recipe for dictatorship,” according to Human Rights Watch. The “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” features provisions that will allow the government to censor all media and social media, monitor all telephone communications, and there’s even a catch-all provision to bring in any new law they can think of. And of course, the new powers won’t end when the coronavirus emergency is over.
China: Beijing didn’t need the excuse of the coronavirus to surveil its citizens’ movements online and offline, but it did take the opportunity to impose a new color-coded surveillance app designed to say if a citizen was free to travel or not — and of course the app sent all the information it collected to the police.
The Philippines: Where to start? President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police and military personnel to “shoot dead” members of the opposition and protesters who object to his stringent lockdown measures. Police have held people in dog cages for breaching curfew, while another police captain forced LGBTQ+ people to kiss in public and do a ‘sexy dance’ — all while streaming the whole thing live on Facebook.
Uganda: The government raided a shelter for LGBTQ+ people and took 20 individuals into custody, claiming they were violating rules on assemblies of more than 10 people. The incident marks a growing trend of excessive police brutality being used to enforce the strict lockdown in the country.
Poland: The current regime is seeking to force through the presidential election next month, despite a ban on campaigning due to the health crisis — a move the opposition says highly favors the incumbent, President Andrzej Duda.
Ghana: President Nana Akufo-Addo has introduced draconian new powers that have no sunset clause and don’t even mention COVID-19 in the legislation. "The new law gives him a loaded gun to use as he pleases, especially in restricting people's movements,” Ras Mubarak, an MP for opposition National Democratic Congress, told the BBC.
Belarus: Unlike most leaders on this list , President Alexander Lukashenko, is taking a more relaxed approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of a lockdown, Lukashenko is threatening his citizens’ lives by keeping the country open and advocating taking hot saunas, working the fields, and vodka, “to clean your hands and your insides.” But the president’s approach is not working, and the health ministry reported a spike in cases in the country this week.
Venezuela: President Nicolas Maduro isn’t putting up with anyone questioning his country’s preparedness — or lack thereof — to deal with the coronavirus. According to Reuters, authorities in Caracas have tried to arrest seven different critics of the government’s preparedness for the coronavirus.
Thailand: As the Thai king isolates himself in a luxury Swiss resort, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan Ocha can now arbitrarily impose curfews and censor the news media thanks to new emergency laws. Journalists have already been sued and intimidated for criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak.
Chile: The government’s decision to enact a “state of catastrophe” may have been a response to the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s had the added benefit for the country’s rulers of silencing raging dissent and protests by sending the military into the streets.
Bolivia: Last month, Interim President Jeanine Áñez issued a decree that rights groups say is overly broad and allows the government to prosecute anyone who criticizes government policies, violating free speech protections.
Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has approved the use of secret cellphone data to track the coronavirus outbreak. The highly personalized information, originally developed for counterterrorism, will be used by his internal security agency. Those in breach of home-quarantine rules face up to six months in prison. Netanyahu has also ordered all the courts to close, which means his own scheduled appearance to face corruption charges will be delayed.
Bangladesh: The government in Dhaka is cracking down on any criticism of its handling of the pandemic response. In recent weeks it has arrested at least a dozen people, including a doctor, opposition activists, and students, for their comments about coronavirus, most of them under the draconian Digital Security Act.
Serbia: Prime Minister Ana Brnabić approved a decree that gave the government total control over information during the crisis, while at the same time praising China’s crackdown during the coronavirus. Only after a reporter was arrested for coverage of the situation in a hospital in the city of Novi Sad, did Brnabić revoke the order.
Myanmar: Authorities in Myanmar have used coronavirus to expand information censorship by blocking hundreds of websites in the name of combating disinformation. But the block includes the websites of registered ethnic media agencies, including several in Rakhine State, where the government has already severely restricted internet access. Also, three street artists were arrested after influential Buddist hard-liners said an image portraying a grim reaper figure spreading the virus looked like a Buddhist monk.
Kenya: Activists have raised serious concerns about the new powers police have to enforce lockdown measures in Kenya. These concerns were heightened when a teenage boy looking out from the balcony of his home was shot and killed by police enforcing a curfew. “They come in screaming and beating us like cows, and we are law-abiding citizens,” said Hussein Moyo, the father of Yasin, the boy who was shot. Police have also fired tear gas at ferry passengers and have been filmed hitting people with batons.
Paraguay: People violating quarantine rules were made to do star jumps and threatened with a taser. Others were asked to repeat “I won’t leave my house again, officer” while lying face down on the floor. Videos of the punishments — recorded and shared by the officers themselves — were praised by the country’s interior minister “I congratulate them. I don’t have the same creativity as those that are making the videos,” Euclides Acevedo said.
Turkmenistan: The country, rated dead last in Reporters Without Borders' 2019 World Press Freedom Index, is taking a unique approach to the pandemic: ignoring it. Despite neighboring Iran suffering huge casualties, Turkmenistan is one of the last countries in the world to have no reported cases of coronavirus. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov instead is reportedly directing police to arrest citizens who publicly discuss the pandemic.
Egypt: In Cairo, where President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been accused of downplaying the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, the government revoked the credentials of two journalists for reporting on Canadian epidemiologists who estimated Egypt's coronavirus infections had surpassed 19,000.
Hungary: Victor Orban has really taken advantage of the emergency situation. Not only did he introduce legislation that allowed him to rule by decree but he also forgot to put a sunset clause in the legislation, meaning only he can decide when his new powers come to an end — though it was surely just an oversight.
Yemen: President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi is taking a novel approach to fighting coronavirus: stopping newspapers from being published. Last month Minister of Communications Muammar Al-Aryani issued a decree that states: “The issuance of government newspapers and private ‘paper’ newspapers will be suspended and only electronic copies will be issued.” Similar decrees have been issued in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco.
United Arab Emirates: The Gulf News reported last week that “people who circulate rumors may be jailed for one year if they spread false information.” Rights activists now worry that COVID-19 could be used as a pretext to imprison some of the bloggers and Internet activists who are targeted by the State Security Apparatus (SSA).
Iran: One of the countries worst-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, Iran has reported over 4,000 deaths so far, and government critics say the toll is much higher. In the midst of this crisis, the government launched an app that claimed to diagnose coronavirus but instead sent users’ real-time location data to the Ministry of Information — without any explanation of what the data would be used for, who would have access to it, and how long it would be stored for.
Armenia: The Parliament in Yerevan last week approved a new law that gives authorities very broad surveillance powers to use cellphone data for tracking coronavirus cases. The law will also give the authorities access to confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus.
North Korea: Kim Jong Un, like his counterpart in Turkmenistan, is opting for denial to deal with the pandemic. Officially, North Korea has had no infections and it has tried to seal its borders with the rest of the world to stop the spread of the coronavirus. However, there have been reports that hundreds of soldiers have already died from COVID-19 and with a health system ranked among the worst in the world, experts fear Pyongyang is ill-equipped to deal with the outbreak and Kim’s denials are making the situation much worse.
India: India has been strongly criticized for the way it’s treated its tens of millions of migrant workers during the coronavirus lockdown, but more worrying for privacy advocates is the explosion of new apps designed to collect biometric data on citizens without any legal framework or oversight in place. One app being rolled out in Karnataka, a state in southwest India, forces people in home quarantine to upload a selfie every 30 minutes to ensure they are complying with self-isolation rules.
Cover: Military police officers patrol in central Budapest, Hungary, Friday, April 3, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government has implemented a lockdown, which will stay in effect until April 11. People may only leave their homes for work or to purchase essential goods. Members of the police are tasked to ensure compliance with the rules while providing support and being empathetic with the residents. (Marton Monus/MTI via AP)