Is autocracy the cure for the coronavirus? That’s becoming an increasingly common message as China, where the outbreak began, has gone without any locally transmitted cases over the past several days, while European countries and the United States are on the verge of being overwhelmed by the virus.
It’s not surprising to hear the Global Times, a Communist Party–run English language tabloid, crow that because leaders are accountable to voters and authority is less centralized, “Western political systems lack such an ability to mobilize and organize on such a massive scale.” It’s a little more striking to see the New York Times wonder if Europe’s death count, now higher than China’s, is the “price of an open society.”
It’s true that the kind of draconian lockdowns that have become the preferred method of stalling this virus are harder to carry out effectively in democratic societies that confer robust civil liberties on its citizens. But what happens after the immediate threat abates?
The virus may be devastating autocracies and democracies alike, but it’s also hastening the continued spread of authoritarianism, as leaders use the crisis as a pretext to amass and consolidate power.
There are few things more enticing to an autocratic government than a pretext to surveil and detain citizens. Chinese authorities are reportedly abusing their quarantine powers with little accountability, while ramping up government monitoring of what was already one of the most electronically surveilled societies on Earth. There are also disturbing reports of ethnic Uighurs being forced to work in factories that had been closed due to contagion, despite the risks.
Meanwhile in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is using the instability provoked by the virus as part of the justification for constitutional changes that would allow him to run for a fifth term, and to ban mass protests against the vote. The need to enforce quarantine orders has also provided a convenient test case for the Russian authorities to roll out their expanded facial recognition and surveillance capabilities.
The virus is a threat to the survival of fragile democracies as well. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having lost the last election and facing criminal charges, has seized extraordinary powers in the name of mitigating the spread of the virus. Netanyahu shut down Israeli courts—conveniently postponing his own corruption trial—and has prevented the newly elected members of the Knesset from convening, thereby keeping rival Benny Gantz, who is currently tasked with forming a government as a result of the most recent election, from assembling key committees. He also authorized the Shin Bet security agency to use its phone tracking technology, never before used on Israeli civilians, to monitor coronavirus patients.
American democracy, already weakened, is also under threat. The virus has already resulted in several states delaying their primary elections. There are already concerns about what it will mean for November if the crisis drags on into the fall. The U.S. census has also delayed its field operations, imperiling efforts to make the all-important count as comprehensive and representative as possible. The Justice Department has asked Congress to allow courts to suspend habeas corpus during the crisis. More broadly, the crisis will concentrate more executive power in a president who has already shown himself uniquely inclined to abuse it.
Globally, the crisis has resulted in the shutdown of international borders, accomplishing in one fell swoop the dream the right-wing populists in the West have been trying to accomplish for years. The European Union, which for all its flaws has been one of the most effective democratization projects in world history, may never fully recover from this moment. The virus has also resulted in an increase in xenophobia that will only benefit ethnic nationalists.
Even the staunchest civil libertarian has to admit that some trade-offs are inevitable at a time like this. Enforcing quarantine orders on innocent civilians and locking down cities is and should be a painful step for any democracy. For now, there’s little alternative. But ceding these rights now could have long-lasting consequences. As shown by the counterterrorism measures entrenched in the U.S. and elsewhere over the past two decades, when governments acquire new surveillance and detention powers to confront an overwhelming threat, they’re unlikely to give them up when that threat abates.
More concerning than how governments will respond to the crisis is the impact it will have on society. With the inability to launch street protests, or even hold small gatherings, civil society has lost a powerful check on government abuses. Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing protests have been on pause since the city’s outbreak. Russian opposition groups have been forced to scale back their protests against Putin’s power grab.
Online dissent can be a powerful tool for opposition groups, but mostly to the extent that it can be used to get bodies in the streets. If all political activity moves online, it’s more subject to censorship, monitoring, and misdirection by the authorities. What governments really fear are massive gatherings that can shut down a city. Right now, governments are the ones shutting down cities.
Global democracy was already under threat, and this moment will not help. Authoritarian leaders will almost certainly come out of this crisis with more entrenched power, and authoritarian forces within democratic countries will have a new set of arguments and methods at their disposal.
But this need not be a foregone conclusion. Last year saw a stunning wave of global protests, mainly in opposition to governments seen as corrupt and unaccountable. And some American political leaders are increasingly drawing connections between corruption at home and authoritarianism abroad.
Rather than simply cede authority to all-powerful states, small-d democrats around the world could use this moment to argue for a government that is more accountable and transparent. China will do its best to make this virus a case study for the superiority of its political system. But China’s failure to take the early actions that could have prevented this disease from spreading in the first place can also be attributed to tendencies of that same system. Official media downplayed the severity of the crisis for weeks in order to preserve social stability, and local authorities in Wuhan detained and publicly reprimanded the medical workers and bloggers who tried to raise the alarm. One could just as easily say that China’s political system is the reason the world is in this mess. This is a case that can and should be made without resorting to the sort of xenophobia and racism on widespread display now.
In democratic countries, this crisis ought to demonstrate the value of leaders guided by data, science, and an inclusive view of the public interest. This style of leadership can be a powerful argument against the narrow emotional appeals of populists and demagogues.
Of course, it’s hard to campaign or protest based on such arguments when no one is allowed to leave their house. Some activists, now that they cannot congregate in person, are getting creative. Brazilians are expressing their anger at Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the virus by banging pots and pans from their balconies. Israelis are protesting against Netanyahu’s soft coup from their cars. Citizens will need to make much more noise before this is over.