The Slatest

Strongman Medicine: Suspicious Numbers and Brutal Quarantines

A raised, gloved fist separates photos of Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe, both wearing masks.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images, STR/Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images.

Welcome to Strongman Medicine, a weekly column looking at how governments around the world are taking advantage of the pandemic for censorship, surveillance, and repression. Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

The 1918 flu almost certainly didn’t originate in Spain. One popular theory for how it acquired the “Spanish” name posits that Spain was the only country where you could read about the disease. That’s because Spain remained neutral during World War I, and therefore its newspapers weren’t censoring any information deemed harmful to national morale. The disease was also rampaging through other countries, including France, Germany, Britain, and the United States, but those governments suppressed or downplayed reports on the extent of the damage.


Accurate and timely information is vital to combating a pandemic, but still, some countries’ first impulses are to cover up the spread of the disease. This week, we look at a few of those efforts, plus some brutal methods of enforcing stay-at-home orders.


The official line from Beijing claims that China is over the worst of the coronavirus. Wuhan, where the virus originated, has seen no new cases in a week and nearly all the new cases nationwide are imported—mostly Chinese nationals returning from abroad—rather than local transmissions. Businesses and factories are reopening, and the world’s second-largest economy is grinding back into gear.

But there are some reasons for skepticism. A U.S. intelligence report concluded that China has concealed the total number of cases and deaths in the country. Some health workers say that there are still cases that aren’t making it into the official count, and that asymptomatic cases are being discovered but not reported. According to some media reports, funeral parlors in Wuhan are ordering thousands more urns than official death tallies would suggest are needed. China’s film regulator has also put the brakes on plans to reopen the country’s movie theaters. The government is now planning to delay the all-important college entry exams for months. Officially, this is due to the risk of cases being brought in from abroad, but given China’s track record since the early days of the outbreak, which included suppression of information and arrests of whistleblowers, some skepticism of the official narrative is more than warranted.


Vladimir Putin’s government has also been accused of downplaying the severity of the outbreak. Officially, there have been 2,337 cases in Russia—very low by international standards—but low testing rates make it hard to know for sure. Critics suggest that a suspiciously nationwide uptick in pneumonia cases in recent weeks actually consists of undiagnosed COVID-19 cases. Aggressive measures put in place to punish the spread of “false” information on the outbreak online may also be preventing media outlets from publishing accurate information.


After moving much more slowly than other governments to order lockdowns and social distancing measures, Russia is finally implementing new rules as the number of cases has grown rapidly in recent days. Putin, who was highly visible while touting the government’s efforts to contain the disease’s spread early on, was conspicuously absent when it was time to deliver the bad news. The impending crisis has not stopped Russia’s government from scoring a propaganda coup by shipping medical supplies to other countries—including the U.S.


It may not just be dictatorships that are playing this game. Given its proximity to China, high elderly population, and high smoking rate, Japan would seem to be highly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Yet the number of cases and deaths in the country has been conspicuously low until recent days—perhaps suspiciously low. Japan, which has not adopted widespread testing or the kinds of strict social distancing measures seen elsewhere, saw the number of cases spike dramatically since it was announced last week that the 2020 Olympics would be postponed. Critics including former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama have suggested that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government was manipulating the stats in order to make the outbreak appear under control and keep the Olympics in play.


Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced an unprecedented three-week lockdown for India’s 1.3 billion people, setting off a rash of panic buying and creating confusion about how the millions of poor Indians in the country’s informal sector are supposed to support themselves. The lockdown has left vast numbers of migrant workers stranded and hungry.


Reports of police abuses quickly surfaced. Video showed police in Uttar Pradesh forcing young boys to perform frog jumps for violating curfew, while another video in Belgaum showed officers violently breaking up a crowd inside a mosque. An ambulance driver was reportedly beaten to death by police when he was suspected of transporting passengers, and another man was killed after venturing out to buy milk.


Kenya’s police have also been accused of using excessive force to enforce the country’s dusk-to-dawn curfew. Video showed ferry commuters being beaten and tear-gassed in the city of Mombasa, an hour before curfew even went into effect. A journalist was also beaten while covering protests against the incident. According to Human Rights Watch, “In Mombasa, police forced crowds of people to lie down together, in some cases on top of each other, as they beat, kicked, and slapped them for allegedly violating curfew”—being about as counterproductive to combating a disease as one could imagine.


The Guardian reports that Colombian death squads have been taking advantage of the country’s coronavirus lockdown to kill activists in rural areas. These death squads are former members of the rebel group FARC as well as other armed right-wing and left-wing factions that have turned to drug trafficking and illegal mining since a peace deal formally ended the country’s decadeslong civil war in 2017. Now, with government resources focused on containing the COVID-19 outbreak, the groups are targeting environmental and land rights activists. Making things worse, the nationwide quarantine that goes into effect this week will make it harder for these activists to move around, turning them into easier targets.


Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Ethiopia has postponed what many hoped would be the country’s first true democratic elections. The vote, scheduled for the end of August, was to be a a test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was earned praise—and the Nobel Peace Prize—for lifting a state of emergency and press restrictions, releasing political prisoners, and resolving a long-standing border conflict with Eritrea, but has also presided over a disturbing rise in ethnic conflict. A true competitive election could have shown that Abiy’s reforms are genuine. A new date for the election will be announced “after the risk of the virus has been resolved,” according to the government.


Hungary’s parliament on Monday passed the emergency law, discussed in last week’s column, allowing President Viktor Orbán to rule by decree for an indefinite period. This arguably makes Hungary the first dictatorship within the EU and the first democracy to fall victim to the coronavirus. As Politico reports, even before the latest law, Hungary’s government was “facing Article 7 proceedings under the EU Treaty, used when a country is considered at risk of breaching the bloc’s core values.” While Hungary’s move was roundly condemned by a number of political leaders throughout Europe, the EU commissioner for justice would say only that the situation was being evaluated.