Covid-19 and authoritarianism

by Vartika Neeraj

Trump mask

Flushing Ave, Brooklyn. Zach Korb via Flickr.

Desperate times like pandemics have been historically known to compel citizens to look to their leaders for guidance and support. A notice from cholera-hit Prussia in the 1830s reads ‘what you have to do is trust in the authorities and obey what the authorities say’. The world is currently seeing a similar turn of events where people are being compelled to blindly trust their leaders in the absence of an alternative. However, the question that this raises is can this trust be misused?

This is even more relevant when we note that the current pandemic has resulted in 84 countries declaring a ‘state of emergency’, which curtails the democratic rights of individuals as well as establishing systems to ensure better surveillance of activities. While these restrictions are needed in order to slow the advancement of Covid-19, the concentration of power has already resulted in instances of its abuse. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared an indefinite state of emergency that allows him to rule by decree and imprison individuals preventively for up to five years. Further, the surveillance data that is currently being collected to combat the spread of the virus could potentially be misused even after the pandemic has passed. If our past experience with privacy issues were to serve as a precedent, it is not unreasonable to assume that personal data could be easily compromised.

Why authoritarianism?

Authoritarian trends often accompany national emergencies like the current crisis because the executive needs to act quickly and therefore curtail several procedural requirements that ensure accountability in ordinary circumstances. For instance, several countries including The Gambia and Israel have suspended or restricted parliamentary deliberations. Further, as noted earlier, citizens are a lot more dependent on their leaders during emergency situations, which often translates to them having a higher propensity to renounce their democratic rights in exchange for protection and effective action. It is this very Hobbesian power dynamic that has allowed governments to easily implement surveillance programmes that severely hinder the privacy rights of citizens. For example, thousands of people in India have downloaded the government’s surveillance mobile app Aarogya Setu despite the lack of transparency on how the data collected is going to be used.

Patriotic calls to action have urged people to accept the emergency powers being exercised by populist leaders.

It is also important to note that contesting abuses of power in emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic is an incredibly daunting task. Mass protests or demonstrations against such instances are implausible given the current restrictions on assembly and non-essential movement. Further, an international outcry against leaders misusing the pandemic to advance their own agendas is also unlikely given that international organisations and global powers are largely consumed with the pressing problem of containing the virus.

The fact that the spread of the pandemic came at a time when populism was rising globally has also made it easier for populist leaders to capture power. Populism has often been associated with politicians projecting themselves as the ‘sole saviours’ of the ordinary masses. This kind of narrative that results in an unmediated connection between the leader and his people has become commonplace in the way politicians are combatting the coronavirus. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a relief fund for affected people called PM Cares, putting himself and the office of Prime Minister at the centre of the fight against the virus. Further, all major decisions related to the crisis are being virtually announced by Modi – no other minister, bureaucrat or party official is communicating any significant policy information. This has helped him become the exclusive representative of the people and has resulted in the centralisation of power in his hands.

Further, populists have been known to use emotional appeals by highlighting the fears and anxieties of people in order to mobilise support . This strategy is also being used by leaders who refer to the health crisis as a ‘war’ that requires the ‘sacrifice’ of the people. The use of such patriotic calls to action have urged people to accept the emergency powers being exercised by populist leaders.

Is authoritarianism here to stay?

While authoritarian abuses of power have been enabled by the pandemic, the situation is not entirely hopeless. There is reason to believe that, in the longer scheme of events, democratic principles will prevail. While emergencies can scare the public in the short term, the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests worldwide are testimony to people’s  commitment to the values of equality, justice and freedom. Moreover, several reports have shown that despite the current appeal for authoritarian strict actions, combatting the pandemic will require extreme levels of transparency from governments. The state needs to be honest with its citizens and share realistic predictions of the future in order to prepare them for the difficult times that lie ahead. This will ensure that lockdown conditions are executed smoothly and people have some notice to make plans about their accommodation and finances. It is the citizenry’s trust in their leaders that will determine the success of norms like ‘social distancing’ without opposition and resistance. This is naturally more likely to be found in democracies as opposed to authoritarian systems.

The current crisis will likely expose the chinks in the armour of authoritarian regimes in the long run.

Further, populism as an enabling factor for authoritarianism could also weaken in the long run. Populists have reportedly been mishandling the pandemic globally as they have felt the pressure to downplay the dangers of the virus in order to continue the appeasement of the masses that their popularity depends on. For example, President Donald Trump has kept insisting that the US has the disease under control and that the epidemic will disappear shortly. Such platitudes have resulted in the healthcare system and general population of the US being vastly underprepared for the severity with which COVID-19 has hit the country. Instances like these reveal the systematic dangers of populism and are likely to cause people’s disillusionment with populist leaders.

Therefore, while authoritarian trends have been augmented during the global healthcare crisis, there are optimistic signs that point towards the revival of democratic principles in the aftermath of coronavirus. The current crisis will likely expose the chinks in the armour of authoritarian regimes in the long run as people come to realise the virtues of transparency and trust.

About the author

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Vartika Neeraj graduated in Political Science and International Relations from Ashoka University, India. She previously worked with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.   

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