We’re already seeing leaders in some nations taking advantage of the crisis to entrench their regime and limit popular accountability. Most prominent is Hungary, whose legislature granted President Orban extraordinary emergency powers to rule by decree, and imposes long jail terms for spreading ill-defined “fake news.” But from Israel, to Chile, to Thailand, regimes around the world are using new powers to protect themselves from public scrutiny while claiming to be protecting the public. And in most, if not all, cases, those regimes can count on a base of support for their power grab that could well be sufficient to sustain them through the crisis period and beyond.
That’s a recipe not only for the erosion or, in the worst cases, the outright end of democracy, but for failure to defeat the virus itself. China’s increasingly autocratic regime, for example, thoroughly botched the first weeks of their encounter with COVID-19, punishing truth-tellers rather than sounding the alarm. The result was that the disease spread far more widely than it otherwise might, and many other countries were far more exposed than they otherwise would have been. And while China deserves considerable credit for reversing course, and its draconian clamp down appears to have been singularly effective at stopping the epidemic at its source, tentative efforts to restart the economy are raising the prospect of renewal of the epidemic. Without a degree of trust and transparency that the Chinese regime has never manifested, there’s a real risk of a repeat performance, with the government focused more on protecting its own reputation than on the health and welfare of the populace.
In wartime, loose lips sink ships. But the coronavirus has no ears. In this battle, while the state is going to have to increase its involvement in daily life, it has no legitimate basis for limiting press freedom, restricting public criticism, or otherwise interfering with the process of public accountability.