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How authoritarian governments are using COVID-19 to expand their control

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August 14, 2020

To fight COVID-19, governments across the world have had to implement a broad range of restrictions that temporarily infringe on the rights and freedoms of their citizens. Most countries recognize that these extraordinary measures are indeed temporary and will be repealed in the near future. But there is a growing concern that authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes will continue to impose these constraints even after the public health crisis has passed.

“We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic,” Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told the New York Times. And as Times reporter Selam Gebrekidan warns, the new laws “broaden state surveillance, allow governments to detain people indefinitely and infringe on freedoms of assembly and expression, they could also shape civic life, politics and economies for decades to come.”

Here are five examples of countries using the COVID-19 pandemic to impose harsh new controls over their own people.

Belarus

Belarus has been called “Europe’s last dictatorship” because the country is controlled by the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko has served since 1994 as the country’s first and only president in the post-Soviet era. The inability of Lukashenko to slow down the spread of COVID-19 led to increasing opposition to his government. Yet in the national election held this past Sunday, Lukashenko won in a landslide victory, claiming an implausible 80% of the vote. The response to the election has been three days of demonstrations, which have been violently suppressed and have resulted in the arrest of more than 6,000 citizens with evidence emerging of the brutal torture of those arrested.  

An internet shutdown also began on the day of the election and has continued throughout this week. Despite the Belarusian government’s denial of a state-sanctioned shutdown, it is widely assumed that Lukashenko’s government instituted the complete shutdown to internet connectivity throughout the country, including the use of land-line phones.  

China

Recent reports from China claim that state-sponsored churches forced to close because of the pandemic lockdowns are only permitted to reopen if they give money to the Chinese Communist Party. A director of a state controlled Three-Self church said that officials from the local Religious Affairs Bureau threatened to shut down many churches if they did not donate in amounts ranging from between $560 and $1,400. Some congregations offered to deposit their contributions directly into the pandemic victims’ bank accounts, but officials from religious affairs departments refused to allow that option. 

The country’s state-approved churches are also only allowed to reopen if they praise President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party in sermons. According to the religious liberty magazine Bitter Winter, the Religious Affairs Bureau of Zhengzhou, the capital of the province of Henan, released a list of 42 prerequisites for churches that sought to reopen, which included the requirement to promote Communist Party leaders and doctrine in sermons. 

A member of a Three-Self church in Henan told Bitter Winter that, “Instead of a normal sermon, the preacher talked about the patriotism of medical workers during the epidemic, and their sacrifice to the state. These things are important, but political things were discussed for half of the time. Many believers complained afterward.”

If you want to learn more about the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses, next Friday, the ERLC is hosting an online event on this rising threat with Russell Moore, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and Rushan Abbas of the Campaign for Uyghurs. Register here.

Iran

The Iranian government has used the COVID-19 crisis to spread distrust against other nations, especially the U.S. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top political, military, and religious leader, suggested in March that the U.S. had created a special version of the novel coronavirus “based on Iranian genetic information they have gathered” and that the U.S. could use aid offers as a way “to further spread this disease” to disrupt Iran. Major General Hossein Salami, Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, also claimed that the country was “involved in biological warfare,” which necessitated build-up of their military power. Iran’s deputy health minister said that sanctions imposed by the U.S. were impeding the country’s purchase of medical supplies (in reality, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment are exempt under international sanctions). 

The government has also used the crisis to control the flow of information in the country. In March, the coronavirus was used as a pretense to shut down all print newspapers,  and a spokesman for Iran’s armed forces admitted that 3,600 people have been arrested for spreading “rumors” regarding the coronavirus pandemic. The purported rumors include the claim that the government has been involved in a cover-up to conceal the number of COVID-19 related deaths. An investigation by the BBC found that the government’s own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with COVID-19 symptoms up to July 20, compared to the 14,405 reported by its health ministry. 

North Korea

The socialist state implausibly claims there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within their borders, despite the outbreak occurring to their neighbors on their northern (China) and southern (South Korea) borders. Experts worry that the lack of adequate healthcare and the malnutrition could facilitate the spread of the disease and exasperate the pandemic.

North Korean authorities have reportedly exploited the crisis to increase technological surveillance. The result has been that the number of refugees escaping Kim Jong Un’s regime has fallen to the lowest level on record

Russia

As CNN reports, the COVID-19 pandemic is “now giving Russian authorities an opportunity to test new powers and technology, and the country’s privacy and free-speech advocates worry the government is building sweeping new surveillance capabilities.” For example, the government launched a 170,000-camera facial-recognition system that the Moscow police now claim is being used to catch and fine people who violated quarantine and self-isolation. 

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has also ordered Russia’s Ministry of Communications to implement a tracking system based on “the geolocation data from the mobile providers for a specific person” by the end of this week. According to a description in the government decree, says CNN’s Mary Ilyushina, information gathered under the tracking system will be used to send texts to those who have come into contact with a coronavirus carrier, and to notify regional authorities so they can put individuals into quarantine.