The coronavirus pandemic began as a global health crisis. It spawned an economic crisis. Now COVID-19 is also fueling a crisis for democracy and human rights.
Leaders around the world are using the virus as cover to reduce transparency, increase surveillance, arrest dissidents, repress marginalized populations, embezzle public resources, restrict media, and undermine fair elections.
The urgency of this threat emerges from a first-of-its-kind global survey of experts and activists on democracy and human rights, conducted by the nonpartisan Freedom House in partnership with the research firm GQR.
Our organizations submitted questions to 398 democracy and human rights experts and activists, who monitor 192 countries. By more than a fourfold margin, 75%-17%, they agreed that “overall, the coronavirus outbreak has been a setback for democracy and human rights in my main country of focus.” Some 64% agreed that this negative impact would persist over the next three to five years, suggesting the setback for democracy may well outlast the health crisis.
The pandemic hit at a moment when global democracy was already weakened. Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report has shown a steady retreat for political rights and civil liberties over the past 14 years. Governments’ abusive actions during the health crisis have accelerated this decline.
Freedom House’s global monitoring has identified 80 countries that lost ground on human rights and democracy over the past six months, including the Philippines and Sri Lanka in Asia, Brazil and Nicaragua in Latin America, and Hungary, Belarus, and Turkey in Europe and Eurasia. The United States is part of the pattern: Among other problems, the Trump administration used COVID-19 to justify the summary expulsion of asylum seekers detained at the border with Mexico, and disputes about health precautions contributed to flawed primary elections in Wisconsin and Georgia, pointing to a potential democratic crisis during and after the Nov. 3 general elections.
The data highlights several ways the pandemic is eroding freedom.
First, freedoms of expression and media freedom, already ebbing in recent years, are under full-scale assault. According to the experts we surveyed, in nearly half (46%) of the 192 countries they monitor have imposed new or harsher restrictions on the news media during the pandemic; over half, 59%, imposed new restrictions on free speech or criticism of the government. Some governments have passed legislation against spreading “fake news” about the virus, then used it to block websites, articles, or posts that critique the state’s performance. A respondent on Kyrgyzstan said, “Medical workers who openly spoke out about the problems they encountered were forced to apologize and recant their claims on video.”
Second, national elections were disrupted in nine countries, as was balloting in a larger number of regional or local elections. While some changes may be justified for health reasons, many authoritarian leaders are exploiting the health crisis to manipulate elections in their own favor. According to an expert on Belarus, “The authorities, having done nothing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, [and] used the epidemic solely to limit the rights of citizens during the election campaign,” including by restricting international and local observers. Public outrage toward President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has led to an enduring pro-democracy protest movement (pictured).
Third, numerous leaders are reducing government transparency. A 62% majority of respondents distrust what they are hearing about the pandemic from the national government in their country of focus. And governments are keeping their citizens in the dark about more than the virus. Many are also seizing the opportunity to scapegoat marginalized populations or steal public resources. The pandemic’s two biggest impacts on democracy and human rights, according to these experts, are on “lack of transparency” (picked by 37% as one of the three main impacts) and “corruption and money in politics” (picked by 31%).
The survey underscores the need for global leadership on democracy and human rights. Our report suggests many steps the United States and other democracies can take to assist frontline activists in places like Hong Kong, Belarus, and Venezuela. With protests moving online amid coronavirus fears and crackdowns on Internet freedom, activists need technical support, security, and training for their digital work. Financial support is imperative if journalists are to continue playing their vital role, which includes disseminating accurate data about COVID-19 and countering disinformation.
The United States should also join with other countries to isolate leaders who trample on the rights of their people or silence critics with violence. The Global Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that authorizes targeted sanctions against officials and entities involved in human rights abuses and corruption, has been notably effective. The Baltic countries, the United Kingdom, and Canada are following suit with similar laws. It matters a great deal even to dictators whether they are excluded from global forums, and whether they, their cronies, and their families are denied visas or access to foreign banks.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken a million lives and drained trillions of dollars from the global economy, with the most tragic impacts on the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other disadvantaged populations. We must not let it claim additional victims by robbing people in dozens of countries worldwide of the basic rights to freedom of speech, association, conscience, and self-governance. The therapies needed to end the democracy crisis have already been invented; we must simply summon the will to use them.