The Slatest

Strongman Medicine: Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Back

Photo illustration of protester being arrested on the ground.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images.

A depressing truth is that strongmen leaders can actually mount an effective response to the coronavirus, even as they shred democracy and entrench their power. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accused of trashing Israel’s rule of law because he exploited the pandemic to muzzle the Parliament, shut down the courts, and remain in office despite corruption charges. Still, his government’s aggressive early measures have kept Israel’s death rate strikingly low. Hungary, where President Viktor Orbán granted himself sweeping new powers, has also kept its outbreak under control. Vietnam is both a public health success story and one of the worst offenders on censorship during the outbreak.

But some autocrats and wannabe autocrats are faring worse, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko, who have downplayed the crisis and are now presiding over public health disasters, or like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who waited far too late to acknowledge the severity of it.

These leaders have not only failed to protect their citizens from a deadly pandemic. They’ve risked their credibility as effective leaders and in some cases are suffering damaging losses in popularity. The autocrats that took this disease seriously are likely to be in a far better position to maintain power indefinitely than the ones who thought they could talk their way out of it.

The Hong Kong Protests Are Back

The massive anti-Beijing demonstrations that took over Hong Kong for much of last year have mostly been on hold during the coronavirus outbreak, but protesters are starting to trickle back onto the streets. On Sunday, more than 200 people were arrested in anti-government protests, after applications for a permit to hold a Mother’s Day protest were denied. Some of those arrested were charged with violating guidelines preventing the gathering of more than eight people in a public space. On Wednesday, hundreds violated social distancing guidelines at shopping malls around Hong Kong to hold protests mocking Chief Executive Carrie Lam on her birthday.

Opposition leaders hope full-fledged protests can resume this summer, but authorities may continue to use social distancing rules to block them. With protests on pause, Hong Kong and mainland authorities have moved quickly to further erode the city’s political independence. Hong Kong has been extremely successful at containing the virus, with only four deaths—remarkable in a dense city where many citizens have little faith in the authorities. In the Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci argues that the “organizational capacity and the civic infrastructure built by the protest movement played a central role in Hong Kong’s grassroots response.”

Indians Push Back Against Contact Tracing App

Data privacy advocates in India have filed a legal challenge against a contact tracing app, known as Aarogya Setu, that the government has made mandatory for anyone who goes to work or rides public transportation. At least one city has made not installing the app on one’s smartphone a criminal offense. The Indian government, which began gradually lifting a nationwide lockdown this week, says the app is necessary to track the virus’s spread. But activists say the app lacks data protections for users and could be a gateway to even more invasive nationwide surveillance. Even before the pandemic, the Indian government had been pushing a controversial biometric ID database, as well as a National Register of Citizens that was widely seen as a means to discriminate against Muslim migrants.

“Fake News” Laws Are Weaponized

New laws ostensibly meant to prevent the spreading of misinformation about the virus continue to be used to crack down on anti-government dissent around the world. A number of Facebook users have been arrested in Hungary for critical posts about the government’s response. The crackdown is authorized under the emergency law passed by President Viktor Orbán’s government at the beginning of the pandemic. In Bangladesh, four people have been arrested for “spreading rumors and misinformation” on Facebook. They include a cartoonist arrested for satirical drawings of ruling-party leaders.

More Emergency Powers for Sisi

While a number of countries have declared states of emergency to respond to the virus, Egypt has been under a sustained state of emergency since a deadly terrorist attack in 2017. In fact, states of emergency have been the norm rather than the exception for the past 40 years. But Parliament still passed an amendment to the emergency law last week giving President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his security agencies even more sweeping powers, including the ability to ban or limit public gatherings, even in the absence of a public health crisis. Earlier in the outbreak, Egypt expelled a Guardian reporter after a story suggesting the country like had more cases than the official count.