Here is the thing: power hungry leaders are itching to exploit the coronavirus crisis; and already, the coronavirus has handed world leaders sweeping powers that they may never give up – the “powers that be” have used their newly found authority to place restrictions on people (some temporary and others permanent.) However, people ought not let temporary coronavirus restrictions become permanent. In fact, it would have been ideal, and welcome, for people to have just said no to authoritarian tendencies and power grabs from the onset – the power of the people should never, even when there is a crisis, be handed over to “leaders.” Power is never (or at the least, almost never) voluntarily returned.
The coronavirus crisis is obviously being exploited by authoritarians – for authoritarians, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to consolidate power. For instance, “the Chinese government is placing its political goals above public health.” More particularly, China understands the coronavirus could reshape global order – China is maneuvering for international leadership. Africans ought to be worried about Chinese global dominance as Chinese discrimination towards Africans is real and China’s political system ends up with Africans being mistreated. I would not hold my breath as African “leadership” always seems to want to confine Africans to their huts. Stay in your cozy, comfy huts while we, the “leaders” get rich (off Chinese money); we, the leaders, will be sure to send you a bag of rice and a t-shirt (plastered with our smug manes) come election time, if we call elections at all – that’s the perennial message.
Anyway, while China jostles for global power, other authoritarian regimes are in denial. The despots that head these regimes claim that the nations they terrorise are unaffected by coronavirus – what better way to showcase your divinity and splendor than claim a virus cannot affect a nation under your leadership. As of April 3, 2020, as reported by the BBC, North Korea was claiming to be totally free of any coronavirus cases. Defectors disagree. Similarly, as late as April 22, 2020, Turkmenistan was claiming to be coronavirus free – “‘If there was a single confirmed coronavirus case [,] we would have immediately informed … the World Healthcare Organisation in line with our obligations,’ Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told a briefing.” “‘We are not hiding anything,’ he added, speaking alongside United Nations officials.” Yes, we should absolutely believe the country that banned the use of the word coronavirus – “if you happen to utter the word ‘coronavirus’ while waiting, say, for the bus in the white-marbled capital Ashgabat, there’s a good chance you’ll be arrested.” And lest you forget (or do not know), Turkmenistan borders Iran and as of writing this piece Iran had 108,000 confirmed cases with 6,640 confirmed deaths.
Denialism aside, a crisis, or a pandemic for that matter, is a good time for authoritarians to consolidate power and would-be authoritarians to grab power. Power grabs in times of crisis, or more particularly when a pandemic is afoot are nothing new: “There is nothing new about the sudden enthusiasm for aggressive government intervention during a health crisis. Throughout history, pandemics have led to an expansion of the power of the state. As the Black Death spread across Europe in 1348, the authorities in Venice closed the city’s port to vessels coming from plague-infested areas and forced all travelers into 30 days of isolation, which eventually became 40 days; hence the word quarantine. A couple of centuries later, William Cecil, the chief minister to Queen Elizabeth I, battled the plague in England with a law that allowed authorities to shut the sick in their houses for six weeks. A few years later, the Plague Act of 1604 made criticising these and other measures illegal.”
The use of power, the force of the state (anyway, I’m being redundant because the state is by definition force), takes many forms, among which are: censorship, surveillance, force, expansion of executive authority and government excess. Authorities justify all as means of combating a crisis. All are unjustified.
Censorship is a common feature of the coronavirus crisis. For instance, China is “expelling journalists from several leading US publications, including those that have produced incisive reporting, and has detained independent Chinese reporters who venture to Wuhan.” In like manner, governments in Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey are “detaining journalists, opposition activists, healthcare workers, and anyone else who dares to criticise the official response to the coronavirus.” And in Mauritius, a woman was arrested for mocking Mauritius coronavirus fight. “Police in Mauritius have charged a young woman for sharing an image mocking Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth which they termed ‘fake news.’ Rachna Seenauth shared the post with text saying that the prime minister would hold a teleconference with world leaders, including U.S President Donald Trump and China’s leader Xi Jinping, to advise them on how Mauritius was successfully combating the [coronavirus]outbreak. ‘[The world leaders] will ask Mauritian PM about the miracle treatment and methods being used in his country where Covid-19 testing frequently returns zero positive results,’ the text on the image said.’” Censorship is also being justified as a means of stopping the spread of misinformation.
All over the world posting misinformation about the virus could now get you arrested: BBC research “shows there have been reports of arrests for spreading fake coronavirus news in India, Morocco, Thailand, Cambodia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Singapore, Botswana, Russia, South Africa and Kenya.”
Beyond censorship, there is a surveillance problem. After all, during a pandemic the surveillance state thrives: “From cellphone tracking to drone eyes in the sky, perused health records, and GPS ankle bracelets, an epidemic of surveillance-state measures is spreading across the world.”
In China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, the government “leveraged its already deeply intrusive system of social control to force people to install cellphone apps that assigned them a code according to (allegedly) their perceived risk of spreading contagion. Permission to travel or enter public spaces depended on that code even as the software also tracked their whereabouts and shared data on users’ phones with the authorities.”
In South Korea, authorities tracked people’s cellphones and credit card usage. Authorities also used surveillance cameras to monitor the movements of those suspected of being infected.
In Spain, authorities used (or are still using) aerial drones to detect unauthorised gatherings of people. Loudspeakers on the drones then ordered violators to return home. In the United States, “U.S., government officials joined with tech companies to paw through the location data that most of us share with cellphone apps. The idea is to determine if people are staying at home as ordered; if not, the information detects where [people are]clustering.”
In Dubai, mandated curfews are being enforced by the security services and surveillance. “Meanwhile, Bahrain introduced electronic tags for patients who had tested positive for [coronavirus].” In fact, governments across the Middle East have moved to upgrade their surveillance capabilities under the banner of combatting coronavirus.
Aside from censorship and surveillance there is a force problem. As of April 28, 2020, the UN was warning against the use of excessive force as a measure to help combat the coronavirus crisis. Accordingly, “The agency urged governments to ‘recognise that the threat is a virus, not people.’ South Africa, Kenya, Uganda [,] and Rwanda are among countries where security forces have used repressive measures to enforce restrictions to movement. The UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said countries should not use emergency powers as a weapon to quash dissent and control the population. She said shooting, detaining [,] or abusing people for breaking curfew because they are desperately searching for food is unacceptable and unlawful.”
In Uganda, an MP was arrested for distributing relief food amid lockdown. “Police in Mityana District, Uganda…arrested Mityana Municipality legislator Francis Zaake for allegedly distributing food to his starving constituents. The Wamala region police spokesperson, Rachel Kawala, said the MP was arrested on allegations of distributing food items to constituents in Buswabulongo, Busimbi Division in Mityana municipality contrary to the presidential directives. Police said the MP had also flouted measures and guidelines of the [coronavirus]national taskforce, led by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, on food distribution to vulnerable people.”
In Liberia, three Liberian soldiers were to be investigated for lockdown brutality. “President George Weah declared a state of emergency on 10 April which included restrictions on movement. Since the restrictions came into force, social media has been awash with reports of brutality by security forces.”
In Rwanda, “police have arbitrarily arrested scores of people since directives to prevent the spread of [coronavirus]came into force on March 22, 2020. The authorities have accused people of violating the measures and at times detained people in stadiums without due process or legal authority.” Further, while the Rwandese were under a government enforced lockdown, there were reports of officers raping and killing people. “Stay at home so that our disgusting officers can know where to find you and abuse you” is one hell of proposition.
Not to be outdone, in Nigeria, as of April 16, 2020, security forces had killed more Nigerians than did coronavirus – law enforcers killed 18 people whereas coronavirus killed 12 people. Is there any more of an “African headline” than this? I spoke too soon – A Nigerian judge decided to hand down a death sentence via Zoom.
Expansion of executive authority
Sometimes police brutality will not suffice. Instead the executive branches, the “heads” of the police, seek to expand the authority of their offices.
In Hungary, PM Viktor Orban sought indefinite emergency power in a coronavirus bill. Orban was granted the indefinite authoritarian power he sought. Under this new regime, Orban will be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws, not only ones related to the crisis; jail terms will be imposed on those disseminating news deemed untrue or distorted; and elections and referenda will be postponed for the indefinite time of the emergency. The world has seen Oban’s move before – Hosni Mubarak ruled by emergency law for over 30 years.
In the United States, Trump signed the Defense Production Act, (and subsequently invoked the DPA after initially saying it would not be necessary to do so.) According to ABC News: “The DPA gives the president the power to direct civilian businesses to help meet orders for products necessary for the national defense.” The intent of which is “to help with the allocation of resources, products and facilities and essentially makes available several authorities to the president.” The law sweeps broadly and is dictatorial in that the president “can essentially dictate industry production and force companies to sign contracts telling them how to allocate materials and also impose wage and price controls, settle labor disputes and control consumer and real estate credit, among other authorities given by the law.” The DPA sweeps so broadly because it is a war time instrument – it “was passed during the Korean War in 1950…[and]President Harry Truman first used it as a legal means to enact control over the civilian economy during the war.” Congress, much to the chagrin, as I imagine, of the founders who thought the various branches of government would jealously guard their constitutional powers, has expanded the DPAs scope “to include homeland security and domestic emergency management.” The undoing of the Madisonian architecture is something to behold – congress should be ashamed. Anyway, it is only fitting that Trump, the man who does not want to wear a mask because it would signal that he is preoccupied with health instead of the economy, would be the beneficiary of decades of Congressional abandon. Trump’s power grab extends beyond the DPA – the Trump administration has sought emergency power. According to Politico, “The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies – part of a push for new powers that comes as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the United States. Documents reviewed by [Politico] detail the department’s requests to lawmakers on a host of topics, including the statute of limitations, asylum and the way court hearings are conducted. [Politico] also reviewed and previously reported on documents seeking the authority to extend deadlines on merger reviews and prosecutions.” This was utterly unnecessary as the DOJ does not need emergency powers to cope with the coronavirus crisis.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “shut down Israeli courts, ordered the internal security services to secretly track citizens using their cellphone data and incapacitated the nation’s parliament.” Netanyahu, himself, stands to benefit from the shutdown of the judiciary – because of the shutdown Netanyahu’s trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust was postpone, from its March start date, until late May. Moreover, “the decree instructing the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, to covertly access the phones of people diagnosed with the coronavirus, or those suspected of possible infection, was not made public. It had not even been seen by the ministers who voted for it” – that measure went into immediate effect and soon 400 Israelis received text messages saying, “Hello, you were in close proximity to someone with corona.”
In some instances, governments do not need to grab power they merely need to do something unnecessary – you see, governments need to act and if you do not follow edicts that may infringe upon your civil liberties, governments will let you know you have stepped out of line – fine or trip to jail, anyone? Hell! Why even do that when they can simply ban a vice of your choice. It is all government excess.
In Italy, as early as March 26, 2020, authorities charged nearly 110,000 people for breaking lockdown measures introduced to control its ongoing coronavirus crisis. Ministers, in Italy, “approved an emergency decree to introduce tougher sanctions for anyone who ignores the lockdown.” Because of this emergency decree anyone who violates containment measure could be fined “between €400 (£360) and €3,000 (£2,700); a significant increase from the previous maximum fine of €206 (£187).” Additionally, “anyone who has been quarantined after testing positive for [coronavirus]and ‘intentionally violates’ the order to stay in their home could face a prison sentence between one to five years, according to the decree.” In France, “police handed out over 4,000 fines … to people found violating an order to stay at home, on the first full day of a lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the country.” In the UK, as of April 30, 2020, “more than 9,000 fines have been issued in England and Wales for breaching coronavirus lockdown restrictions.” Let us fund our cripplingly budgets on the backs of those we have forced into unemployment – it is good policy guys. So says your government.
In the United States, at the city level, Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, warned that stay-at-home violators would be taken to jail. While police powers during a pandemic are constitutional, they are not unlimited and one what is true is one of the side effects is of the coronavirus is an increase in police powers. Coronavirus authoritarianism, in the united states, is getting out of hand.
In South Africa, the wise overlords that head the government decided it necessary to ban the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. The message is clear, the South African people are too stupid to decide what is or is not good for them – the government knows best. Shut up and be sober.
The point of highlighting all the above listed instances of government power is this: The current coronavirus crisis will subside but the expansion of government power (by autocrats, would be autocrats, and even liberal democracies) may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies. What we the people have given away, our power, may never be returned. All the above measures have been justified, by those in power, as necessary to combat coronavirus but if you believe that is the sole reason you are no student of history.
To end, I will say this (just because it is newsworthy): Anyway, as pertains to Africa, the continent that loves the dictator, it is befitting that the coronavirus has forced its leaders to confront healthcare systems that they have neglected for years. And confront they must – 190,000 could die from coronavirus in one year. But do not worry Madagascar has a miracle cure that has been tested on less than 20 people. Yet, despite the lack of any medical study, Tanzania has promised to procure the home brew and Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia have already bought the brew. No need to follow this advice: Do not use untested remedies. But then again, “Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina has said criticism of an untested herbal tonic that he is touting as a treatment for [coronavirus]shows the West’s condescending attitude towards Africa.” No sir, you are the one with a condescending attitude – send your tonic out for medical study and do not use vulnerable African’s as Guinea pigs. If your homebrew does work medical study will show it does – and, after then, if you want to profit that is your right. Africans please give these leaders (profiteers who use big statements as “condescending attitude to Africa”) more power – it is desperately needed.
The views expressed in part four of this article are Nkosi Mfumu’s own opinions and not necessarily those of Business Tech Africa.
About the author: Zambia-based lawyer (licensed to practice in the State of Illinois) holds a BA in International Studies (with a concentration in International Relations) and is also a Juris Doctor.