An ill wind: the pandemic is giving states political cover for controversial acts

Calamity — as anyone who ever bought real estate during a recession knows — sometimes presents opportunities.

For many governments, the pandemic crisis presents the perfect cover for carrying out actions they could only dream of before the virus struck.

Around the time people first started falling ill in Hubei province, the Communist Party of China was wrestling with the difficult question of how to respond to voters in Hong Kong massively rejecting pro-Beijing candidates in local elections.

Early in the New Year, as news of the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan began to spread, China replaced its top official in Hong Kong with Luo Huining, who has a reputation as a party enforcer.

On Saturday he made its move, arresting 15 major pro-democracy figures — including Martin Lee, the former colony’s octogenarian “father of democracy.”

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Martin Lee, 81, leaves a police station in Hong Kong, Saturday, April 18, 2020. Hong Kong police arrested at least 14 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists on charges of joining unlawful protests last year calling for reforms. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

A distracted world

Lynette Ong, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto’s Asian Institute, said that the detainees include people Beijing would have been reluctant to go after had the world not been distracted by a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis.

“They’ve been wanting to make these arrests for a long time,” Ong told CBC News. “They know the rest of the world’s attention is on coronavirus.”

If Beijing was hoping that other countries would be reluctant to denounce its actions at a time when many of them have urgent orders for medical equipment pending at Chinese factories, it may have guessed right. Both Canada and the European Union issued fairly anodyne statements, saying the arrests demand “close scrutiny.”

While it defended the right to peaceful protest, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s statement included a line that seemed to suggest both sides shared some blame: “We urge all sides involved in the crisis to exercise restraint, to refrain from violence and to engage in peaceful and inclusive dialogue to address the legitimate concerns expressed during the 2019 protests.”

“I don’t know what ‘all sides’ means,” said Ong, who believes that Xi Jinping’s autocratic regime has been winning back its people’s trust after a rocky January and February. “I’m not optimistic for the future of Hong Kong.”

The dictator of Hungary

Hungary’s experiment with democracy in the post-Communist era began to falter the moment Viktor Orban was elected prime minister in 2010. “We only have to win once, but win properly,” he said at the time. His actions as leader since have shown a single-minded dedication to subjecting Hungary to his personal rule.

Hungary’s independent media outlets have been largely silenced by being closed or bought out by oligarchs connected to Orban’s Fidesz Party using money that comes largely from public contracts.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center, walks out into the main press room to brief journalists during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

So debate was muted when Orban proposed a new law that would suspend parliament, stop all elections and allow him to rule by decree. The Fidesz-dominated parliament voted heavily in favour of the bill, which also gives the government the right to jail those it accuses of spreading pandemic misinformation for up to five years.

Orban claimed the measure was necessary to allow the government to act swiftly to “save lives” in a pandemic. “We cannot react quickly if there are debates and lengthy legislative and lawmaking procedures.”

But given Orban’s history of methodically dismantling Hungary’s democracy and institutions, most human rights groups predict his new powers will be used against anyone who criticizes the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Rewards, not punishments

“This bill creates an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and gives Viktor Orban and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights,” said Amnesty International’s Hungary director David Vig in a statement.

Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi called for the law to be withdrawn, or for Hungary to be expelled from the European Union.

But far from protesting Orban’s takeover, the EU appears set to reward him with a huge $8.4 billion Cdn payout from its coronavirus mitigation fund. The money is to be distributed according to the rules that govern EU regional aid flows, rather than according to the actual impact of the pandemic.

And so Hungary, which has had just over 200 COVID-19 deaths, will receive more money than Spain — which has suffered over 20,000 deaths — and more than twice as much as Italy, which has lost about 25,000 people to the virus.

It’s hardly a move that will deter the new strongman of Budapest, much less dislodge him.

Bolivia’s election postponed

When public anger over alleged electoral fraud led to the overthrow of Bolivia’s Socialist President Evo Morales last November, Canada found itself in a democratic dilemma.

The Trudeau government believed that Morales — who lost a referendum on whether he should run again, and then did it anyway in a highly dubious election — had lost legitimacy. But it was reluctant to embrace a new government that appeared to be filling up with some of Morales’s most virulent opponents from the religious fundamentalist far right. 

Canada’s embrace of the new president of Bolivia, Jeanine Añez, was lukewarm and predicated upon a quick rerun of the election.

Jeanine Añez, center, wearing the presidential sash and carrying a Bible, addresses the crowd from the balcony of the Quemado palace after she declared herself interim president of the country, in La Paz, Bolivia, Nov. 12, 2019. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

“Now that President Morales has resigned, Canada supports an institutional solution that will allow for a temporary caretaker administration to prepare for new elections and avoid a power vacuum,” Global Affairs spokesperson John Babcock told CBC News.

“Bolivians deserve to have their voices heard and democratic rights respected, and it is critical that free and fair elections be held as quickly as possible. Canada stands ready to support those efforts.” 

An early plan to hold the election rerun on January 22 was abandoned in the first days of the New Year and Bolivians were told to prepare to vote on 3 May.

But now, with some polls showing Morales’s party in first place (albeit with a paltry 23 per cent support) that election has been postponed, with the government citing the COVID-19 crisis as its excuse. No new date has been set.

Texas goes after abortion

Texas’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott has never been shy about his goal of eliminating legal access to abortion services — but has been prevented from following through by federal law, as interpreted through the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

So his government has had to content itself with merely placing obstacles and inconveniences in the way of women who want abortions — actions which contribute to the state’s unusually high rate of DIY abortion attempts.

Then COVID-19 came along, giving Abbott the chance to ban non-essential medical procedures — including abortion. Republican governors in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa and Ohio soon followed suit. Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee tried the same thing but were blocked by courts.

A group gathers to demand more access to abortion services at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas in May, 2019. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

The stated rationale for banning abortions — keeping hospitals free to treat pandemic patients and saving precious personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers dealing with COVID-19 cases — makes little sense in a state where only 0.2 per cent of abortions are performed in hospitals.

About 90 per cent of abortions in Texas are performed using a two-pill process; judges initially refused to order a suspension of those outpatient procedures. On Monday, an appeals court allowed Texas to ban those as well.

Texas Republicans have not tried very hard to hide their glee over these developments. Texas Republican congressional candidate Kathaleen Wall actually claimed the pandemic might save lives as a result.

But their triumph may be short-lived because it collides with another Abbott objective: reopening his state to normal commerce as soon as possible.

Normal medical procedures are supposed to resume in the Lone Star State this week if providers can prove they won’t take much-needed PPE away from the fight against the pandemic. It’s not clear how that will affect abortion clinics.

Netanyahu clings on

If Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu were not a consummate political survivor, he would never have become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But many observers thought his indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, coupled with the conviction of his wife Sara for misusing public funds, would be too much even for him to survive.

And it might have been — had COVID-19 not given Netanyahu a pretext to close Israel’s courts on March 15, two days before his trial was due to start.

A new trial has been set for May 24, although nobody knows for sure that will actually happen.

Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020. (Pool via Reuters)

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s allies in the Knesset, who failed to win a majority in three consecutive elections, took advantage of the crisis to use procedural manoeuvres to prevent the formation of a new government.

Netanyahu insisted he was motivated only by the desire to form a government of national unity at a moment of national crisis.

“No one wants this more than I do,” he said, “because I saw the coronavirus pathogen galloping toward us, and I know it’s not going to leave us in the foreseeable future. Under these conditions, I know that the country needs a broad and stable government.”

This week, Netanyahu’s chief rival Benny Gantz cited the pandemic as his reason for agreeing to serve in a unity government under a man he has often described as unfit to govern Israel.

No criticism, please — it’s an emergency

Many governments have introduced new restrictions on speech in the name of combating “misinformation” about the novel coronavirus. (The Trudeau government also has flirted with the idea.)

In many cases, the “misinformation” governments are concerned about is anything that calls into question their own responses to the pandemic.

In Turkmenistan, a hermetic police state dominated by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s cult of personality, saying the word “coronavirus” or wearing a mask in public can lead to arrest, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center left, and Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, center right, walk together on the sideline of the Summit of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. (Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press)

Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha used COVID-19 to declare a state of emergency that gave him sweeping powers to censor media and critics.

“After a state of emergency is announced, everyone must be careful about social media misinformation,” Prayuth warned the Thai people in a television announcement. “The media and all of those who use social media to distort information will be scrutinized.”

Already, Thailand has arrested one citizen for a Facebook posting about a lack of screening for airline passengers landing in Bangkok from Barcelona. Danai Ussama faces a possible five-year sentence.

Meanwhile, in Canada

Canadian politicians and business leaders are not immune to the temptation to make the most of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attempt to run Canada without having to consult with Parliament until the end of 2021 was condemned as a “power grab” by opposition parties, constitutional scholars, historians and non-partisan watchdogs.

The notion of allowing a minority government (which did not win the popular vote) to govern without normal democratic checks for 21 months was soon abandoned and the Trudeau government settled for six.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers tried to use the pandemic to secure a laundry list of environmental rollbacks it would like to see — including the postponement of the new Clean Fuel Standard for three years and a concession exempting oil industry lobbyists from having to report their lobbying of politicians.

And some Conservative premiers responded to the pandemic by calling for the urgent repeal of the carbon tax — something that just happened to be their favourite political target long before COVID-19 struck.

It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows nobody good. In Canada, at least, COVID-19 has been that ill wind — since none of the attempts to exploit the crisis have succeeded.