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Democracy could be the gravest casualty of this pandemic

  • Sam Hamad
  • 7 Apr 2020

Several leaders have seized the moment to further entrench authoritarianism under the cover of Covid-19.

A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, passes in front of graffiti painted on the shutter of a closed restaurant during a lockdown order by the Greek government to control the spread of the virus, in Athens, Monday, March 30, 2020. ( AP )

Covid-19 could not have picked a worse time to make its appearance on the world stage. 

Of course, there could never have been a good time for this pestilence to ravage the globe, but it’s darkly ironic that the virus has emerged at such a bleak time in history. 

The already shaky global democratic order, as the defining principles of international law and human rights, has been terminally weakened by a series of interconnected events that stretch from 9/11 and the subsequent mass criminality of the ‘war on terror’, to the re-emergence of genocide on the world stage in Syria.  

The definitive language of this era is authoritarianism erupting around the globe, including in zones of the world that many thought were immune to that particular affliction in the post-Cold War era.

In Europe, for example, over the past decade or so, we’ve seen an increase in the hybridisation of authoritarianism and democracy - illiberal democracy or post-fascism, as it has been termed. The ground zero for this particular outbreak was Hungary, with the now decade-long rule of the openly illiberal and opportunistic authoritarian Viktor Orban

Orban’s infamy is primarily focused on his anti-immigrant crusade, leading to him clashing with but more often than not shaping EU policy towards refugees, asylum seekers and non-EU migrants. Muslims are a particular target of hate for the despot who claims to be standing up for ‘Christian culture’. 

But since then, Orban has been joined on the European and global stage by a wide range of politically similar figures and parties, whether as governing or electoral forces. 

But it’s no surprise that Hungary is the first country to fall victim to what might be termed a Covid-19 coup. Using the virus as a pretext, Orban has suspended parliamentary democracy and the judicial and executive checks on his power. 

Orban passed a law that allows him to rule by decree for an indefinite period, with the national ‘state of emergency’ caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as the main justification behind this power grab.

Orban is eradicating democracy by arguing that his government ‘cannot react quickly’ to Covid-19 if ‘there are debates and lengthy legislative and law-making procedures’.

Democracy is identified as the main hindrance to saving Hungary from Covid-19. 

In reality, Orban’s new powers finally lift the mask that he has so unwillingly worn for a decade. No more will he have to put up with the inconvenience of elections or the scrutiny of the already weak critical media and political opposition, with all legislative elections suspended until Orban says otherwise. 

Journalists or even opposition politicians who are deemed to ‘state or disseminate any untrue fact or any misrepresented untrue fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection’ is ‘guilty of a felony’.

Make no mistake about it, given Orban – even before this power grab – waged war against civil society, including the media, civil rights NGOs and universities, this law is designed to eradicate criticism of him. For he, according to him and his party Fidesz, is the ultimate protector of Hungary. The penalty for this ‘felony’ is one to five years in prison. 

But, of course, at a time when information, and not censorship, could save lives when it comes to Covid-19, many doctors and health professionals who want to speak out about Orban’s exceptionally lax medical response to the epidemic have now been gagged. 

Instead of taking the necessary steps to fight the epidemic, Orban has blamed the spread of Covid-19 on ‘foreigners’. The presence of foreign students is cited as the reason why universities, but not schools, have been closed in the country.

But while Hungary is perhaps the worst case, these assaults on democracy under the pretext of fighting Covid-19 are widespread. 

A wave

Meanwhile, in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who should’ve been deposed and possibly locked up a long time ago, continues to rule Israel. Now he rules with an iron fist, using the Covid-19 outbreak to suspend the Knesset and the judicial system – which was just about to try him for corruption charges. 

In the US, Donald Trump has used the Covid-19 virus to suppress voting. At the same time, he politicises the ‘Coronavirus press conferences’ to make them more about him peddling disinformation, lies and bluster about his brilliance. 

Any questions about the fact that states have been left hugely under-resourced due to his botched reaction to the outbreak are met with accusations of ‘fake news’, with him famously claiming Democrats were hyping Covid-19 to bring down his presidency.

There is a balance to be struck between measured lockdowns rooted in democracy that have clear public health benefits and using the genuine threat of the disease to eradicate or further weaken democracy and human rights. 

It’s of no surprise that in places such as Italy and Spain, where real horror and tragedy are occurring as they battle the virus, China and Russia have stepped in to fill the ‘humanitarian’ void left by the EU, which was sluggish to react to the needs of its member states. 

Italy, which only seven months ago had an authoritarian fascist as its deputy prime minister, should not be chided for accepting the support of China and Russia, but both fascist groups within Italy and the regimes of China and Russia are exploiting the situation to forge another level of anti-EU propaganda and mythos. 

One of the reasons Covid-19 became a global pandemic was due to the authoritarian denialism of the Chinese state – but even now, China’s authoritarian model is being praised

Democracy has been recast as an impediment in the fight against Covid-19, while opportunistic state forces are rapidly overturning civil liberties and human rights. The fear is that the changes will be permanent. 

Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses in modern democracies, particularly along the lines of economic models that place market forces before health and welfare, but the reaction to this must be a bolstering of democratic values that fed into the creation of health systems and welfare states in the first place – not their abolition.

The human cost of Covid-19 is already much too high, but the socio-political cost could yet be more fundamentally destructive.

Democracy could yet be the gravest casualty of this pandemic. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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