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The Authoritarian Breeding Grounds Embedded in Asian Covid-19 Restrictions

Last updated on August 25, 2021

Citizens in Malé, the Maldives celebrating the presidential election after a decade of highs and lows fighting for human rights and representative governance, April 28, 2021, Asad Photo Maldives/PEXELS

Where is it easiest for peace and liberty to prevail? I would say that it’s in places where there are free people and just laws. And unfortunately, the same is true for totalitarian societies- the more authoritarian the restrictions, the easier it is for authoritarian regimes to gain footing.

Over the past year, Covid-19 death counts have waxed and waned, with places from Italy to New York to India marked as epicenters of the virus. And a lot of the time, when Covid-19 is expelled from a country, people cheer the leaders on. But sometimes, it’s the places with the least deaths where human rights abuses are the most concentrated.

To combat Covid-19, states around the world have taken different approaches, and many have instated policies that encroach upon our civil liberties. A prime example is in China. Even though China has been an authoritarian state for the past few decades, the situation worsened at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when China’s cities of Hubei and Wuhan were declared the first hot-spots of the pandemic.

Officials took swift action, forcibly quarantining people regardless of their liberties and needs. And because of this, China was revered by officials for tackling Covid-19 efficiently as the number of cases declined. But, it’s dangerous to only focus on the numbers because while on the surface, it may appear that China smoothly put the virus to rest, on the inside resided spikes in human rights abuses and restrictions.

According to Human Rights Watch, when Chinese officials began to recklessly force over 60 million citizens into mandatory quarantines, issues arose. Videos circulated online of Chinese citizens crying for help from their balconies and Chinese police sealing off doors. A man with kidney disease committed suicide after he was unable to receive medical attention for days on end, and a boy with cerebral palsy died at home after his only caretaker was taken away by Chinese police. 

But China is what many typically think of when it comes to totalitarian Asian states. And unfortunately, this threat to human rights goes deeper than traditionally totalitarian countries. For instance, in South-East Asia, authoritarian parties have already begun to capitalize on the restrictions initially placed to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, South and South-East Asia made significant democratic bounds pioneered by citizen-led rallies for representative governments and fair policies. But since the 2010s, South-East Asia has seen a steady decline in democratic governments, beginning with the 2014 Junta military coup in Thailand and Philipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s justification of draconian measures in the war on drugs. And overall, by the end of the decade, many states were left nearly as democratic as they were, to begin with.

Up until 2020, the downward trend in democracy in South-East Asian states has been somewhat linear. But what is troubling is that since the inception of Covid-19, democracy in South-East Asia has been on an exponential decline. From Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, politicians have used the pandemic to justify authoritarian measures and to consolidate political power, all in the name of so-called public health.

And from Bangladesh to Pakistan to The Maldives to Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan, civil liberties and human rights are under attack

The product of this? Forced disappearances, universities under attack, unjust arrests of activists, unlawful detentions, and political intimidation. 

But using the situation in China as an example, when Covid-19 is expelled from the region, government officials will likely be praised for efficiently overcoming the virus. And although this in some ways is good, this praise will overshadow those killed, the freedoms that have been taken away, and the democratic representation that citizens aren’t going to get back any time soon. 

And this begs the question of why so many people ignore these abuses. There are three identifiable reasons.

The first is that many believe that the issue isn’t major since Covid-19 seems to be disappearing. However, there are three issues with this argument.

The first is that Covid-19 is nowhere near on its way out in the region. According to CNN, although vaccines have been administered, Covid-19 is the worst it’s ever been in states such as India, with over 400,000 new cases reported daily. Additionally, many of these authoritarian dictatorships will be here to stay even after the Coronavirus. Politicians who have capitalized on the situation have provided no statements on how long they intend to utilize these safety measures. And judging by their policies, it doesn’t seem like it will be anytime soon after Coronavirus.

For instance, the Chinese government required all citizens to download an app on their phones to monitor their locations and statuses. It’s foolish to believe that apps like these will not be used to further oppress citizens beyond Covid-19.

But worst of all, in authoritarian countries that were once democracies, democracies have no way to be lawfully reinstated with their parliaments disbanded, leaders imprisoned, and people exhausted. So, no. This issue is here to stay and will only continue to erode liberties if action is not taken.

The second is that these aren’t the numbers people want to see. Almost everyone is paying attention to statistics about the Coronavirus, but which numbers are we digesting? The worldwide quarantine has limited our view of the world to our solitary corner of “when can things get back to normal?” Because of this, we internalize numbers about the death rates, the number of vaccinated people in our area, and the number of people needed for herd immunity while giving no attention to the number of rights violated or people unjustly dying from Covid-caused police violence.

The final reason why people ignore these totalitarian takeovers is summarized by the saying, “China will be China,” meaning that authoritarian societies will tackle problems in an authoritarian manner. Even though this may be true, this explains, not a justification. Just because “China will be China” does by no means signify that the Chinese government’s actions are excusable.

Although things are looking up for the United States, with just about 40% of the population vaccinated according to the New York Times, Covid-19 continues to run rampant throughout the world. 

So what’s the takeaway? If governments impose draconian measures in an attempt to combat Covid-19, a long-lasting draconian government will follow. We must stay strong to resist threats to global democracy and to speak out against injustice because those who have been imprisoned and are crying for help from their balconies cannot.

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