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.
A report this week from Freedom House, the U.S.-based democracy watchdog, warned that across Central Europe and Eurasia, more and more leaders have “dropped even the pretense of playing by the rules of democracy” and are now “openly attacking democratic institutions and attempting to do away with any remaining checks on their power.” This trend may have begun well before the pandemic, but the current state of emergency certainly makes these attacks much easier to justify.
Why Do Russia’s Doctors Keep Falling?
Three Russian medical workers have fallen out of windows, two of them fatally, under mysterious circumstances in the past two weeks. Alexander Shulepov, a paramedic from the city of Voronezh, is in critical condition after falling out of a second-story window at a hospital where he was being treated for COVID-19 last Saturday. Shulepov had earlier posted a video online along with a colleague in which he complained of being forced to work even after testing positive for the virus. The colleague had earlier been questioned by police for allegedly spreading fake news after complaining publicly about PPE shortages.
On May 1, Elena Nepomnyashchaya, head doctor at a hospital in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, died of her injuries from falling out a window during a meeting about turning the hospital into a coronavirus treatment facility. Nepomnyashchaya reportedly opposed the plan because of equipment shortages.
On April 24, Natalya Lebedeva, head of emergency medicine at Star City, the training base for Russian cosmonauts, also died after a fall from a window.
After a slow start, Russia is experiencing an alarming spike in coronavirus cases and other health workers have been targeted after criticizing the government response and equipment shortages. Defenestration is also sadly not an implausible fate for critics of government policies in Russia. A number of journalists have also died after falling from windows under mysterious circumstances in recent years.
Abusing Power in El Salvador
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele earned some international plaudits for his early and aggressive coronavirus response—he declared a national quarantine in March before the country even had a single case—but his abuses of power since then have been alarming.
El Salvador has rounded up nearly 4,000 people for being outside without valid cause and detained them in “quarantine centers.” Some have been held for as many as 40 days and still have not been told the results of their coronavirus tests. The practice has continued despite a Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional, which Bukele tweeted that he would not respect.
The government has also carried out mass arrests in response to a recent spate of gang killings, raising fears that the virus will spread in the country’s overcrowded prisons. Photos released by the president’s office last week showed hundreds of inmates with their heads shaved and stripped to their underwear, jammed together on a prison floor while their cells were searched.
The young, social media–savvy Bukele was elected last year on a reformist platform, but has since raised fears of a return to authoritarianism for the relatively new democracy, with stunts including bringing troops with him to occupy the legislature in February during a debate on a crime bill.
Media Muzzled in the Philippines
The Philippines’ leading broadcast network was taken off the air this week in President Rodrigo Duterte’s government’s latest attack on the free press. Officially, ABS-CBN was accused of illegally operating a pay-per-view network, but journalists and activists believe it was targeted because of its critical reporting on the government, including the thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out as part of Duterte’s drug war. An application to renew the network’s license was pending for debate in Congress, but hearings were delayed in part because of the coronavirus lockdown. “Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment … when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the network in a statement. Congress has passed emergency legislation in response to the pandemic, which gives the government wide-ranging powers to prosecute media outlets for “fake news.”
Brazil’s Institutions Face a Test Over the President’s Test
A Brazilian court has demanded that President Jair Bolsonaro turn over the results of his COVID-19 test to put to rest speculation that he is lying about them—the latest twist in a larger battle between the president and the courts. There’s been speculation about Bolsonaro’s health ever since 23 members of his team tested positive for the virus after a trip to the U.S., which included a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, in March. Bolsonaro claims to have tested negative, which has not satisfied critics in Congress or the courts. He has sent only a summary of the results in response to a court order, but a federal judge in Sao Paulo is insisting on the actual documents.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus—suggesting at one point that Brazilians are immune because of the country’s poor sanitation—shaken hands with supporters at mass gatherings, and clashed with his own health officials including local and state leaders who have instituted social distancing measures. Meanwhile, at least 127,000 Brazilians have been infected, and officials warn the country could become the next epicenter.
No One’s Going to Rain on Lukashenko’s Parade
May 9 this year will mark the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany. While Victory Day is normally an important political holiday in the former Soviet republics, most countries, including Russia, have canceled festivities this year. But Belarus will not be deterred. Even as the number of cases in the country continues to rise, President Aleksandr Lukashenko is pressing ahead with plans to hold a military parade in Minsk, saying, “We just can’t. I thought about it for a long time. Of course, this is an emotional, deeply ideological thing.”
Lukashenko, a dictator who has ruled since 1994, has been one of the world’s most stubborn coronavirus deniers, refusing to order lockdowns and declaring that it is “better to die standing than to live on your knees.” He has suggested that citizens play hockey, drink vodka, or visit the banya (traditional Russian bath) to combat the disease.
The only other country planning to go ahead with its victory parade is Turkmenistan, which is (very dubiously) still not reporting any cases of the virus.