Human rights activists were generally downbeat about the global state of affairs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, often pointing to 2020 as one of the worst years in memory for declining civil liberties.
Here are seven ways governments have used the Chinese coronavirus pandemic to diminish human rights and civil liberties.
Freedom of Speech: The United Nations was among many agencies and advocacy groups to worry about the damage inflicted on freedom of speech during the pandemic, which included both rampant disinformation and ham-handed restrictions on speech in the name of controlling “disinformation.”
“People have died because governments have lied, hidden information, detained reporters, failed to level with people about the nature of the threat, and criminalized individuals under the guise of ‘spreading false information. People have suffered because some governments would rather protect themselves from criticism than allow people to share information, learn about the outbreak, know what officials are or are not doing to protect them,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye said in July.
“In the past three months, numerous governments have used the COVID [Chinese coronavirus] -pandemic to repress expression in violation of their obligations under human rights law,” Kaye continued, citing Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Egypt, India, Myanmar, and Turkey as nations of particular concern.
“I am further concerned about efforts to repress disinformation using tools of criminal law, which are likely to hamper the free flow of information, such as in Brazil and Malaysia,” Kaye added.
The International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), an international education and development nonprofit, published a report in September called Freedom of Expression During Covid-19 that took a detailed look at how 20 different governments used the pandemic to curtail freedom of speech. Many of these restrictions were justified as efforts to control disinformation. Governments often cited the pandemic as an excuse to dramatically tighten existing restrictions on speech. Few examples of effective resistance to the new “emergency” restrictions were cited.
Press freedom: Related to the free speech issue, but distinct enough to consider the subject on its own, is the damage inflicted upon journalism by the pandemic. In a year-end report published last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found more reporters imprisoned around the world than ever before, many arrested for coverage of the pandemic that contradicted official narratives. Unsurprisingly, Communist China was especially brutal about arresting reporters for pandemic coverage that challenged the government.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a similar report, finding over 130 members of the press jailed for reporting on the pandemic, including citizen journalists.
“Behind every single one of these cases is the fate of a person who faces criminal trials, long imprisonment and often mistreatment because he did not submit to censorship and repression,” said RSF’s director in Germany, Katja Gloger.
Religious freedom: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito warned in November that the pandemic imposed “previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty, from freedom of speech down to the right to a speedy trial, since almost every activity involving human contact has been restricted.”
“The COVID crisis has served as a sort of constitutional stress test, and in doing so, it has highlighted disturbing trends that were already present before the virus struck,” Alito said.
Justice Alito highlighted the danger to religious liberty, as houses of worship have been forced to obey extremely tight social distancing restrictions – often much tighter than activities involving more people and much greater risk of coronavirus transmission. He pointed to Nevada orders imposing much lower attendance caps on churches than casinos as an example.
“Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, which protects religious liberty. You will not find a craps clause or a blackjack clause or a slot machine clause,” he said.
Alito suggested – and some other religious freedom activists have explicitly asserted – that statist ideologues are using the coronavirus as an excuse to stamp out the freedom to congregate and worship, while giving free pandemic passes to activities they favor for ideological reasons, like mass protests. This hypocrisy and hostility to religion became especially obvious in New York, where the Supreme Court sided with religious groups against Governor Andrew Cuomo in November.
Freedom of movement: Quarantines, travel bans, lockdowns, and similar restrictions are obviously difficult to square with the freedom of citizens to travel as they desire, which in turn compromises other human rights that involve the movement of people and goods. Human Rights Watch (HRW) listed this conflict near the top of its dissertation on human rights during the coronavirus crisis:
Restrictions such as mandatory quarantine or isolation of symptomatic people must, at a minimum, be carried out in accordance with the law. They must be strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate objective, based on scientific evidence, proportionate to achieve that objective, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review.
Broad quarantines and lockdowns of indeterminate length rarely meet these criteria and are often imposed precipitously, without ensuring the protection of those under quarantine – especially at-risk populations. Because such quarantines and lockdowns are difficult to impose and enforce uniformly, they are often arbitrary or discriminatory in application.
HRW noted that China’s quarantines were exceptionally brutal, listing cases of people killed by them, including children. In the darkest days of the outbreak in China, the government was locking infected people in their homes and welding bars over the doors and windows. Somewhat less horrifying, but still disturbing, was the recent emergency lockdown in South Australia that forbade imprisoned citizens from getting fresh air and exercise outside, or even walking their dogs.
Surveillance vs. privacy rights: The coronavirus heightened concerns about intensive government surveillance, everywhere from dystopian China to the free world. There are good reasons to fear more governments will adopt China’s tools for monitoring citizens in the name of disease prevention, including versions of the mandatory smartphone app Beijing uses to color-code citizens for their infection status.
Less draconian systems than China’s have been criticized for endangering privacy rights, such as the coronavirus alert program in South Korea, which had a habit of blasting out ostensibly “anonymous” alerts about infection that could easily be used to identify the individuals in question.
Big Data solutions to the pandemic tend to create massive databases of sensitive information that could be employed by governments for other purposes, or compromised by hackers. Legal protections for privacy in the digital era are still evolving, and those protections can be all too easily shredded in a time of pandemic crisis, or perhaps other “crises” the political class decides are the moral or practical equivalent of the coronavirus pandemic.
Political freedom: For better or worse, justified or otherwise, the pandemic led to a sizable number of delayed or canceled elections around the world. Opposition candidates frequently accused the governments in power of using the pandemic as an excuse to stave off elections that might have knocked them out of office. On the other hand, Iran’s stubborn insistence on holding an election for political theater was cited as one of the driving forces in that country’s horrific coronavirus outbreak. The effects of pandemic emergency measures on the 2020 U.S. presidential election will be debated for years to come.
“Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has worsened in 80 countries, with particularly sharp deterioration in struggling democracies and highly repressive states, according to the experts surveyed by the project. More than 60 percent of the respondents predicted that the pandemic’s impact on political rights and civil liberties in their countries of focus would be mostly negative for the next three to five years,” Freedom House warned in October.
“What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy. Governments in every part of the world have abused their powers in the name of public health, seizing the opportunity to undermine democracy and human rights,” charged Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz.
The pandemic was generally useful for political repression and nourished authoritarianism around the globe, including the democracies of the Western world. Arguably all of the other ways in which rulers and elites used the coronavirus to crush human rights contribute to the erosion of political freedom – restricting free speech and association inevitably weaken democracy, for example.
Expanding government power: In America and around the world, opportunistic politicians and ideologues are using the pandemic to permanently increase their power and wealth. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes the virus it unleashed upon mankind will usher in the final triumph of centralized authoritarian power over free-market democracy because it supposedly proved that only authoritarian regimes can deal with a massive crisis like the Chinese coronavirus.
Coronavirus lockdowns created power structures that can be used to enforce the will of the State in countless other areas. Skepticism that any of those “emergency” dictatorial powers will be relinquished after the Wuhan coronavirus recedes is warranted.
Modern history suggests it is more likely those mechanisms of control will be repurposed, finding new missions after the pandemic is over – if, indeed, the political class is ever willing to declare it “over.”
Once people have grown accustomed to life-changing emergency measures, their rulers will be reluctant to let that highly useful state of emergency end, at least not until an equally useful emergency comes along. The very nature of human rights and civil liberties could be redefined by the pandemic and its aftermath. At the very least, it is likely that governments across the free world will use the pandemic to argue that they should consume and control more of the private sector’s wealth, so they have enough resources to deal with a menace on the scale of the Chinese coronavirus. The “right” to be protected from pandemics – and other crises deemed comparably important by politicians and media – will be said to trump every other right, and unlike the other rights it displaces, it will require ever greater concentrations of power in national capitals to administer.