The Slatest

Strongman Medicine: Can Democracy Survive the Coronavirus Crisis?

Vladimir Putin wearing a bright yellow hazmat suit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wears a hazmat suit while visiting a hospital treating coronavirus patients. Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH via Reuters

Stopping the coronavirus will require many governments to take on extraordinary powers to shut down cities, quarantine the sick, and monitor populations. Some governments will undoubtedly use the crisis as pretext to entrench their authority and curtail citizens’ rights. This has been seen most dramatically in China, where the virus originated and where censorship and abuse of power have characterized the government’s response from the beginning. There are also serious concerns about the rule of law and free speech in the United States, the virus’s new epicenter. As part of our coronavirus coverage, Slate will be taking an occasional look at how democracy and the rule of law are holding up around the world amid the pandemic. This is the first installment of the series.


In the past week, leaders around the world have fallen back on some classic authoritarian moves: postponing elections, silencing the press, and detaining government critics.



Human Rights Watch on Thursday accused the Philippines government of committing abuses in the course of the national lockdown. Five youths were locked inside a dog cage for allegedly violating curfew. Other people were forced to sit in the intense midday sun after arrests. One man was killed by police for avoiding a checkpoint. Human rights violations began long before the virus hit the Philippines, but President Rodrigo Duterte, who has encouraged thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of his crackdown on illegal drugs, is not one to waste a crisis. Voting by Zoom on Tuesday, the Philippines Congress granted Duterte sweeping emergency powers to fight the virus. The measure includes provisions subjecting those who spread fake news about the coronavirus to jail times or fines, which human rights groups fear could be used to criminalize dissent or criticism of the government’s policies. Local officials and business owners can also be jailed or fined for failing to comply with the government’s directives.



The Central Asian country’s repressive government may be taking the most extreme approach to coronavirus information control, with plainclothes police reportedly arresting people for even discussing the outbreak in public in the capital, Ashgabat. The wearing of medical masks in public has also been banned as “an incitement to panic,” according to the Russia-based Fergana Information Agency. The country has instituted travel bans and health checks to combat the virus, but there’s been no coverage of this in official media.



Ultranationalist President Viktor Orbán has submitted a law to Parliament that would allow him to rule by decree for an unlimited amount of time, allowing him to suspend and take “extraordinary measures” in the name of public health. Under the emergency powers, those who publish information or material that creates “confusion or unrest” can be punished with three to five years jail time. Orbán had previously used the European refugee crisis for similar moves to clamp down on critics and centralize power.



Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first took power in a 2014 military coup, announced this week that he is invoking wide-ranging emergency powers to combat the virus, which will include the ability “to censor or shut down media if deemed necessary.” A Thai artist was arrested on Monday for posting on Facebook about the lack of COVID-19 screening procedures at the Bangkok airport. He has been charged under the country’s Computer-Related Crime Act, which would carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to maintain power, despite the results of the March 2 election, by shutting down the country’s democratic institutions in the name of stemming the coronavirus. It seems to have worked. House Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Netanyahu loyalist, resigned this week rather than comply with a high court order to allow the Knesset to vote on his successor as speaker. Edelstein had been blocking a coalition of Netanyahu’s rivals led by Benny Gantz, who had narrow control of the body, from assembling the committees needed to form a new government. But on Friday, the two sides appeared to reach a deal. Gantz was elected speaker, paving the way for an emergency “unity” government led by Netanyahu. This would likely bring an end to Gantz’s coalition, which includes factions that refuse to serve under a government led by Netanyahu, currently facing trial on corruption charges. That trial has also been postponed because Netanyahu shut down the courts. Thanks to this emergency, Netanyahu’s job looks safe for the time being, but the country’s institutions look a lot more rickety.



In Iran, which has one of the world’s worst outbreaks and whose government has consistently downplayed the severity of the crisis, several journalists and social media users have recently been detained for questioning the government’s response. These include a professional soccer team captain who questioned the official death toll from his province in an Instagram post.


Turkey’s interior minister says 410 people have been arrested for making “provocative” social media posts about the coronavirus outbreak. Reuters reported that Suleyman Soylu, the minister, said some of the posts mocked old people for going outside during the lockdown and that most of the accounts were linked to “militant groups.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has an expansive definition of militant groups and a history of expansive crackdowns on online dissent.



President Vladimir Putin had previously cited the chaos unleashed by the coronavirus as part of his explanation for proposed constitutional changes that would allow him to run for a fifth term in 2024 and potentially govern until 2036. But on Wednesday, he reversed course and called off a planned April 22 referendum on the changes because of concerns over the virus. Russia has relatively few reported infections—840 as of Thursday—but even some of Putin’s closest allies say the real number is probably much higher. The Committee to Protect Journalists this week criticized Russia’s state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, for censoring two news outlets covering the COVID-19 outbreak.


The South American country has been on a political tightrope since the overthrow of President Evo Morales last November following a disputed presidential election. Bolivia’s interim government has announced that it will postpone a presidential election planned for May 3, as the country institutes a nationwide quarantine. This will not help the perceived legitimacy of the controversial government led by interim President Jeanine Áñez, which Morales’ supporters view as a right-wing junta.