WORLD NEWS
08/05/2020 05:45 EDT | Updated 08/05/2020 14:24 EDT

Many Countries See The Pandemic As A Crisis. Authoritarians Spot An Opportunity.

Autocratic leaders have obscured coronavirus data, cracked down on doctors and reporters, and used the health crisis to further erode democracies worldwide.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

At first glance, Venezuela looks like one of the world’s biggest coronavirus success stories. Amid rampant worries in the pandemic’s earliest stages that COVID-19 would overwhelm the crisis-stricken state, socialist President Nicolás Maduro locked down the country and seemingly stopped the spread. As of Monday, Venezuelan authorities had reported just more than 20,000 cases and 174 deaths, among the lowest numbers in Latin America ― a region the virus has hit harder than any other. 

For months, though, there have been abundant signs that the situation is actually very dire. Doctors have reported that case numbers are far higher than the government asserts and that the country’s beleaguered health system is on the brink of collapse. Journalists have reported their own, higher figures, or shown up outside hospitals to observe the situation for themselves. 

Maduro has reacted with a crackdown against anyone who may expose the state’s faults. In imprisoning doctors and journalists, he joins a roster of authoritarian leaders who have sought to cover up their own inadequacies and failing responses to the pandemic through censorship and repression.

“They don’t want anybody giving alternative numbers. They want to keep control of the message,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based researcher at the International Crisis Group, an NGO. “There hasn’t really been a comprehensive response [in Venezuela] ― all we’ve had is propaganda.”

Globally, the world’s most authoritarian governments, in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Egypt, China and elsewhere, have treated the pandemic similarly: By using it as cover to broaden and intensify their efforts to clamp down on dissent and thwart the free spread of information — and not just about the pandemic.

For authoritarian governments, the coronavirus outbreak has provided an opening to target some of the last remaining freedoms in their countries, and in Maduro’s case, it has sapped an opposition seeking to oust him of any remaining momentum it had. In other nations, meanwhile, the virus has presented an opportunity for aspiring authoritarians to act on their most autocratic whims. 

That approach isn’t just a threat to democratic norms and human rights ― it has likely also further obscured the true scope of the global pandemic and made it harder for health experts to adequately respond to it.

“The countries that are taking these measures are making it difficult to effectively control the epidemic,” said Domingos Alves, a professor of social medicine at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. “And they may, from now on, be the effective cause of a worsening of this epidemic in other countries in the coming months.” 

Silencing Reporters And Doctors

During a mid-May campaign stop, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that the public health problem wasn’t the coronavirus itself, but that testing was finding too many cases of it.

“When you test, you have a case,” Trump said. “When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases.”

He was roundly mocked for the absurdity of the statement, but a lack of testing has proved a key way for governments to limit the collection of coronavirus data. 

AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
Venezuela has a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases, but human rights groups, journalists and doctors have questioned the official figures. President Nicolás Maduro has cracked down in response, strengthening his autocratic grip on the country.

Venezuela, which was credited for its aggressive early response to the virus, has closed all but two official testing sites and prevented private labs from conducting their own exams.

In Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega largely denied the existence of the virus, civil society organizations have suggested that the country’s relatively low counts of COVID-19 cases and deaths are due to a lack of testing and the government’s deliberate attempts to obscure data: “There are reasons to believe” the official estimates are “far lower than the actual number” of infections and deaths, said Tiziano Breda, a Guatemala-based Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group.

In the pandemic’s earliest stages, China’s efforts to control its data ― which included the suppression of medical experts and a crackdown on reporting ― robbed international health organizations and governments of valuable information and time they could have used to prepare for outbreaks. Whistleblower Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, died of COVID-19 months after authorities silenced his warnings. And social media discussion of the virus is censored in China, where the government has expelled foreign journalists exposing the dark reality of the crisis.

Those repressive practices have spread alongside the virus. Venezuelan authorities arrested a journalist for reporting alternative coronavirus figures in March, just days after confirming the country’s first case. The Committee to Protect Journalists has said at least 10 reporters were arrested in the country between late March and early May.

“If you’re a journalist ... and you’re in the vicinity of a hospital and you look like you’re reporting, you risk getting picked up and held and your material taken, and you may get roughed up,” Gunson said. “You may get a call in the middle of the night from the secret police and get disappeared for a few days, and then charged with offenses under what’s called the law against hate.”

Cambodia jailed a journalist simply for quoting the prime minister, while Thailand has criminalized reporting that authorities deem to be “false” news about coronavirus. Police in India have arrested and harassed members of the press who have written critical stories, and the government has reportedly pressured media outlets to publish positive stories about its coronavirus response. In Zimbabwe, journalists have gone into hiding to avoid reprisal from the government: “I am hiding like a rat in my own country for doing nothing more than my job,” one Zimbabwean reporter told The Associated Press this week.

There is sort of an open war against doctors and health care workers who try to voice an independent opinion or complain about the lack of equipment or training.Amr Magdi, Human Rights Watch expert on the Middle East and North Africa

Medical workers have also become an increasingly prominent target of authoritarians: In June, Egyptian authorities arrested Alaa Shaaban Hamida, a pregnant 26-year-old doctor, at her office and charged her with terrorism offenses and “spreading false news” after a nurse used Hamida’s phone to report a coronavirus case directly to the Health Ministry instead of telling her managers. At least a dozen other health care workers and journalists have been held on draconian charges. 

The Egyptian government has failed to provide protective equipment and shares questionable information about the scale of the crisis, and rights groups say the country’s outbreak is almost certainly worse than official figures suggest. But President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly have publicly criticized physicians for not containing the virus, and when the country’s largest doctors’ organization planned a press conference to object to the accusations, rights groups say security forces seized the organization’s headquarters to silence them.

“There is sort of an open war against doctors and health care workers who try to voice an independent opinion or complain about the lack of equipment or training,” said Amr Magdi, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Human Rights Watch. 

In Russia, infectious disease experts have faced intimidation after questioning whether the government is manipulating statistics and death tolls. And while Venezuelan doctors questioned the Maduro government’s official data early in the summer, health officials now “are very, very careful not to give alternative numbers,” Gunson said. 

“It’s been made absolutely clear to them,” Gunson said, “that they will be treated very severely.” 

Medical professionals in Nicaragua have repeatedly pushed back against Ortega’s handling of the pandemic: In a May letter, more than 700 doctors warned that “the deliberate concealment and manipulation of the actual number of people affected” had prevented Nicaragua from implementing “appropriate epidemiological measures of containment and mitigation.”

Ortega’s government has also faced criticism from human rights groups that have accused his government of purposefully obscuring the number of COVID-19 cases by classifying deaths as a result of pneumonia or other common respiratory illnesses, and for holding “express burials” in the middle of the night.  

As of last week, at least 21 Nicaraguan doctors had been fired for disputing the government’s official line on the virus, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The targeting of reporters and doctors is part of broader human rights crackdowns: Turkey’s government reportedly arrested hundreds of people over social media posts, offering only vague explanations for their offenses, while it also detained numerous journalists for reporting on the virus. Zimbabwean human rights groups said the government arrested more than 60 people after a protest this weekend. And between the end of March and early June, the Venezuelan nonprofit Center for Justice and Peace documented at least 184 “systematic human rights violations” under Maduro. 

The Rise Of New Authoritarians

In many of these countries, the attacks on dissent and the limiting of official data are continuations of long-standing practices: The Venezuelan government hasn’t published epidemiological data for the last five years, Gunson said.

“We’re in a black hole in terms of official statistics,” he said. “It’s not that they’re just suppressing information about COVID-19. They are across the board suppressing information.”

Ortega’s government in Nicaragua has for years limited access to official figures on homicides and other vital public information, and his actions during the pandemic are almost indistinguishable from the sort of repression that drew international attention in April 2018, when mass protests broke out against his government in Managua, the capital city.

“The repression, the crackdowns and the threats against journalists have been basically constant since the outbreak of the April 2018 crisis,” Breda said. “The topic now has shifted: We’re talking less about civil liberties and the right to protest, or the narrowing of the democratic state. Now it’s all centered around information related to COVID-19. So the topic is a shift, but the practice has remained the same.”

Trump has sought to bring down Maduro and, to a lesser extent, Ortega, since the beginning of his presidency, and has implemented brutal economic sanctions against both governments that he has refused to relax during the pandemic, further complicating both nations’ approach to the virus. The pandemic, however, has given a new model of authoritarians ― including Trump himself and far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro ― the opportunity to act on their most autocratic and conspiratorial desires, and they have adopted many of the same practices as Ortega and Maduro, two men they ostensibly oppose. 

AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have presided over the world's two worst coronavirus outbreaks, and have each adopted increasingly authoritarian approaches to their countries amid the pandemic.

The U.S. and Brazil rank first and second, respectively, on the list of largest coronavirus outbreaks, but a lack of reliable testing ― and their presidents’ lack of interest in facilitating it ― has likely obscured the true scope of the pandemic in both nations.

Alves, of the University of São Paulo, authored a study in April that showed Brazil’s outbreak was likely at least 12 times larger than official figures showed, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the actual number of infections in the U.S. is likely anywhere from six to 24 times the confirmed total.

Trump and Bolsonaro have both dismissed rising death counts, politicized the use of masks and falsely framed efforts to control the virus’ spread as motivated attempts to crater their economies and bring down their governments. 

Bolsonaro and Trump have each faced accusations of trying to block the public from accessing coronavirus-related data on government websites. They have both used the pandemic to undermine faith in the press and democratic institutions. And the two right-wing leaders, who are friendly with each other, have targeted top public health experts for offering dissenting views, either by firing them, driving them to quit or essentially sidelining them

Trump has responded to his declining popularity with an authoritarian response to racial justice protests, while Bolsonaro has tried to expand his influence over Brazil’s impartial institutions, including its law enforcement and judicial bodies. Before he tested positive in early July, Bolsonaro appeared at small, weekly protests where some supporters called on him to close Brazil’s national Congress. 

AP Photo/Juan Karita
Bolivia's interim President Jeanine Añez took power after the ouster of former President Evo Morales last year. During the pandemic, Bolivia has repeatedly delayed elections to determine a legitimate leader, driving increased fears about the future of the country's tumultuous democracy.

Other leaders have gone even farther than Trump and Bolsonaro. Hungary, for example, passed measures that allowed far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban to effectively rule by decree for months, a time he used to undercut opposition parties.

In Bolivia, far-right evangelical leader Jeanine Añez, who took control after an effective coup against former socialist President Evo Morales, has used the outbreak to strengthen her grip on power, which was cemented with rampant human rights abuses. Bolivia’s electoral court twice delayed presidential elections early in the pandemic, allowing Añez, a supposedly temporary leader who is running despite promising not to, to remain in power even longer. In late July, the country’s top electoral court pushed the presidential vote back again, raising concerns about the future of a democracy that has been on the brink for months.

Under Añez, who is trailing in election polls, “state-sponsored violence, restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary detentions have all contributed to a climate of fear and misinformation that has undermined the rule of law as well as the prospects of fair and open elections,” a Harvard Law School report released last week said.

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, meanwhile, decried criticism of his government’s slow response to the pandemic as “fake news,” even as The New York Times reported that the country’s death toll was roughly 15 times higher than the government’s official figures suggested. In July, a major Ecuadorian opposition party led by former President Rafael Correa was suspended from the 2021 elections in a move prominent regional leaders called an “act of political bias” that “calls into question the legitimacy” of the upcoming contests. (A court recently reinstated the party.)

And in Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei, who human rights activists feared would cement the country’s turn away from democracy when he won election last year, has taken advantage of pandemic-era lockdowns to further weaken the country’s democratic institutions. 

Giammattei, a doctor and former police officer, initially responded with strong measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including a curfew. But in recent weeks, it has become “really obvious that the curfew is a way of controlling social unrest,” especially as rising poverty rates and anger over government corruption threaten to bring Guatemalans back into the streets, said Frank La Rue, a Guatemalan human rights expert and the president of the Central American Institute for the Study of Social Democracy.  

The majority coalition in Guatemalan Congress, which includes Giammattei’s party, has also attempted to undermine the country’s supreme and constitutional courts during the pandemic as it continues to roll back efforts to combat institutionalized corruption in a country where major parties have long been linked to organized crime. 

“Guatemala is a tragedy moving from bad to worse,” La Rue said of his native country, although his warning seemingly applies to countless other nations across the globe. 

“The pandemic,” he added, “has been the perfect cover to take a more authoritarian approach to things.”

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