The Slatest

Strongman Medicine: The Countries That Still Claim to Have No Coronavirus Cases.

Kim Jong-un with a group of soldiers wearing masks.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by KCNA/Reuters.

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.

Russia

After weeks of downplaying the crisis, Russia has shifted into full lockdown mode as the number of cases in the country has exceeded 10,000. There are numerous media reports of police using their new authority to detain and harass citizens. In one egregious case, a doctor who had criticized the government’s response to the crisis was detained while attempting to deliver medical supplies. Anastasia Vasilyeva of the Doctors’ Alliance, a group backed by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, was arrested on April 2 along with several colleagues while bringing masks and other equipment to the Novgorod region as part of a nationwide tour to assess the preparedness of health facilities. She had previously posted videos on YouTube and given media interviews criticizing the government’s response. Vasilyeva was charged with violating the government’s quarantine restrictions. According to Amnesty International, she was choked and punched in the abdomen while being detained in a police station overnight.

New legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin this week punishes “spreading false information” with up to five years in prison and violating quarantine orders with up to seven—both rules that are rife with opportunities for abuse.

China

An outspoken property tycoon and member of the ruling Communist Party has been put under investigation for publishing an essay that criticized the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19.* Ren Zhiqiang, who has not been since in public since mid-March, when he posted the essay, said the virus had revealed a “crisis of government” and referred to Chairman Xi Jinping as a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor.” Ren, the former head of a state-owned company and son of a prominent official, has courted controversy before. His party membership was suspended for a year in 2016 after he criticized Xi’s handling of the state media.

Uganda

Human Rights Watch this week criticized the government of Uganda for a police raid on a homeless shelter serving LGBTQ people in Kampala. Like many other countries, Uganda is currently prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people, but that does not apply to a residence or shelter. Nonetheless, 20 people in the shelter were sent to prison, likely putting them at greater risk for the disease and ensuring they were unable to meet with lawyers because of the lockdown. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, and while the infamous 2014 law that would have punished it with life in prison has been annulled, discrimination is still rampant. Police searched the shelter for “evidence of homosexuality” but eventually decided to charge the residents with coronavirus-related offenses.

Cambodia

Cambodia’s government passed a new emergency law that human rights groups say could allow autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen to “run the country by fiat.” The law creates new crimes, punishable by multiple years of jail time, of “obstructing operations during a state of emergency” and “not respecting measures” ordered by the government to address the emergency—both of which could easily be abused to punish government critics. The country has already arrested more than a dozen people for spreading information about the disease outbreak. Hun Sen, who even before the outbreak had been criticized for clamping down on the media under the guise of fighting “fake news,” is one of a number of leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, using the coronavirus as pretext to assume sweeping emergency powers.

The No-Case Club

COVID-19 has touched nearly every corner of the globe, but there are still a handful of countries reporting no cases. Most are small island nations where travel bans have been effective at keeping cases out. Other examples are more suspicious.

North Korea still says it has no cases, a claim that U.S. officials describe as “impossible.” The Hermit Kingdom’s isolation may work to its advantage here, but given the level of cross-border trade with China, it does seem very unlikely that there are no cases at all. U.S. President Donald Trump sent a letter to Kim Jong-un in March offering assistance in fighting the disease and told reporters that North Korea is “going through something,” though it’s not clear quite what he was referring to.

Tajikistan, which borders hard-hit Iran, also claims to not have a single case, though it has quarantined more than 6,000 people who traveled abroad. The virus could wreak havoc in a poor country with a weak health system, yet dictator Emomali Rahmon has taken almost no steps to institute social distancing, and held a massive public celebration for the Nowruz holiday in late March.

Then there’s Turkmenistan, where even discussing the coronavirus is banned; where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist and health minister, has suggested that his recently published book on herbal remedies could help COVID patients; and where a 7,000-person bike ride was held on Tuesday to celebrate World Health Day.*

Maybe these countries really are just extremely lucky.

Correction, April 10, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the Chinese Communist Party as the Community Party. This piece also misstated the date when Turkmenistan held a 7,000-person bike ride to celebrate World Health Day. It was Tuesday, April 7, not April 8.