Five states, including India, may be using the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown to tighten their stranglehold and perpetuate their agendas.
There is a reason why the Coronavirus pandemic dovetails with agendas of strongmen everywhere. Firstly, it’s easier to create panic and enforce collective obedience. The lockdowns and emergency-like measures make it impossible for mass protests to take place. Invasive surveillance can be mounted with the help of contact-tracing apps. Free speech and press freedoms can be curtailed using the benign pretext of containing the dissemination of false information. Propaganda can be unleashed via pro-state media outlets.
COVID-19 is Infecting Us. And our Governments too!
Here are five governments that are insidiously capitalizing on the fear of COVID-19 to tighten their stranglehold on their populations and further their agendas:
Muzzling the Media – Turkey
From facing criminal charges to arbitrary arrests and prolonged periods of pre-trial detentions, journalists in Turkey have been systematically gagged since the Coronavirus outbreak. According to Amnesty International, the brutal crackdown has seen journalists incarcerated simply for reporting or even posting about the coronavirus on social media.
Former Halk TV editor-in-chief, Hakan Aygün, was imprisoned because of his social media posts criticizing Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationwide donation campaign against COVID-19. He was accused of inciting hatred and insulting the religious beliefs of a section of people. İsmet Çiğit, the editor-in-chief of SES Kocaeli, was arrested following the publication of an online news report about the death of two persons from COVID-19. Though released after a brief detention, he was pressured to stop reporting on the issue. Award-winning journalist and human-rights activist Nurcan Baysal is facing an investigation after she wrote and posted an incisive article on social media about the authorities’ response to the coronavirus outbreak in the minority Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. Even a doctor, Dr. Güle Çınar, was forced to issue an apology after she spoke of thousands of infections – which ran contrary to government statistics – in a video that went viral. Looks like freedom of speech is just a figure of speech in Turkey.
Death of Democracy – Hungary
We all knew the pandemic claimed lives, but in Hungary, democracy itself became a casualty when extraordinary measures passed by the Hungarian Parliament on March 30 enabled Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule his country indefinitely by decree. Orban is now empowered to suspend parliament and all future elections, and imprison people for “violating a quarantine” and “spreading untrue information.”
Alarmingly, only a few days after the emergency bill was passed, the Hungarian government began pushing through legislation unconnected with the pandemic.
These included a ban on changing one’s gender and rolling back the taxation rights of opposition-led municipal governments. According to critics, the first move is ostensibly intended to please his support base – fans who’ve always admired his Christian conservatism and hardline opposition to immigration. The latter appears to be aimed at increasing centralization and making the work of opposition-led municipalities more difficult by starving them of funds. Also, disturbing reports have lately surfaced of ordinary citizens and journalists being arrested, threatened, and harassed for questioning government measures against the pandemic. Will Hungary ever see democracy live again?
A Militaristic Response to Coronavirus – Philippines
The brutality and apathy of the Philippine government was revealed when pugilist President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he had ordered the police, the military, and even village officials to “shoot them dead” if any kind of trouble reared its head. Critics weren’t surprised, given that Duterte has always followed a repressive trajectory in the course of his rule and therefore, fashioned his response to the pandemic along the same lines. On April 1, nearly a fortnight after a nationwide lockdown, a crowd of distraught, impoverished protestors from the slums of Sitio San Roque assembled on a highway, demanding food and financial aid. The starving protestors were summarily rounded up, beaten, and arrested by the police. Since then, nearly 30,000 people have been arrested for defying quarantine rules, including a team of volunteers distributing food packets.
Languishing in overcrowded, unhygienic prisons where the virus is spreading fast, dozens of detainees have lost their lives, while these fatalities are going unreported. Critics have warned that the extraordinary emergency powers assumed by Duterte go far beyond what is needed to rein in the virus and are primarily aimed at entrenching his rule. Could fighting the terror of a pandemic with state-orchestrated terror really work?
Coronavirus: The New Ally of Authoritarian Governments
The Virus of Majoritarianism – India
Although India’s first confirmed case of Coronavirus was reported on 30 January, the pandemic only became major news weeks after a wave of communal violence swept through working-class neighborhoods of North-East Delhi, killing at least 53 people. The conflagration was largely seen by critics and human-rights defenders as retribution against Muslims for protesting against CAA, a new citizenship law, which fast-tracked citizenship for all undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan & Afghanistan. In the days following the lockdown on 25 March, the Delhi Police – controlled by the Centre – arrested dozens of young Muslim men from the violence-affected areas, who’ve since been languishing in prisons owing to little or no access to legal aid due to the lockdown. This was accompanied by targeting young student activists, almost all of whom had helped spearhead the anti-CAA protests, and booking them under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for purportedly having conspired to incite the Delhi riots. No action, meanwhile, has been initiated against ruling party members for fomenting violence through inflammatory, provocative statements.
Not just this. Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organization, which held a large religious congregation – a thoughtless, irresponsible act – in early March was squarely blamed for the spread of COVID-19 in India. Subsequently, a vilification campaign demonizing the whole community was run on social media and pro-government electronic media, which saw a deluge of hate-filled vitriol alleging a Muslim conspiracy behind the virus outbreak. Activists, scholars, and journalists watch helplessly as the ruling dispensation continues to use the COVID-19 lockdown to crackdown on dissent, invoke fear among minorities, and further its majoritarian project.
Factory of Disinformation – Russia
It doesn’t surprise us that the Coronavirus has engendered all kinds of conspiracy theories with regard to its origins and timing. According to several reports, one of those propagating such theories with unmatched assiduity is Vladamir Putin‘s Russia. In a throwback to its 1980s disinformation campaign about HIV/AIDS being an invention of the US Military, pro-Kremlin media networks, bots, and trolls have now been spawning conspiracy theories with regard to Coronavirus, including one which blames the US for creating and weaponizing the virus. More alarmingly, after 5G cellular towers were vandalized in the UK and Netherlands, security officials found that the attacks were linked to a popular conspiracy theory that blamed the high-speed internet system for the outbreak of the virus. According to sources, such false narratives were being put forth by Russia-controlled bot networks with the aim of spreading fear and uncertainty in an already-beleaguered Europe.
Another propaganda campaign designed to spark anxiety among European citizens, especially in Italy, magnified the government’s failures in managing the outbreak, attacking capitalists for cashing in on the crisis. Experts say that the objective of disseminating such alarmist theories is to weaken the European Union by capitalizing on popular frustration with the EU response to COVID-19. Analysts say Russia is also pushing another narrative at home, convincing its citizens that the lethal virus was the handiwork of a foreign power.
Defining the New Normal
At a time when the outbreak of Coronavirus is being deemed as the worst thing that happened to our planet since the World Wars, it is unfortunate that governments are exploiting the crisis to promote vested interests. While the invention of a vaccine may precipitate a return to ‘normality’ – a world without the terror of a microscopic being taking over our bodies & lives – one can’t help but wonder if a return to pre-existing political conditions will ever be possible again.
Will increased surveillance, narrowed space for dissent, and a timorous media also be part of the ‘new normal’ we are so often encouraged to get used to?