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

Crisis or opportunity? For some governments in a hurry to do things voters might balk at in normal times, the pandemic offers both.

From China to Israel, an unprecedented emergency is presenting openings some politicians are keen to exploit

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, centre, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is arrested by police officers at his home in Hong Kong on April 18, 2020. Hong Kong police arrested at least 14 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists on Saturday on charges of joining unlawful protests last year calling for reforms. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

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 his 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 on April 18, 2020. (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 said. "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."

Orban's rule in 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, centre, walks out into the main media room to brief journalists during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels on Feb. 21, 2020. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

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 said 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," David Vig, Amnesty International's Hungary director, said 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 slightly more than 200 COVID-19 deaths, will receive more money than Spain — which has suffered more than 20,000 deaths — and more than twice as many as Italy, which has lost about 25,000 people to the virus.

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 — 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, centre, addresses the crowd from the balcony of the Quemado palace in La Paz after she declared herself interim president of Bolivia on 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 Jan. 22 was abandoned in the first days of the new year and Bolivians were told to prepare to vote on May.3.

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

CBC News asked the government of Canada for its reaction to the postponement. A spokesman for Global Affairs said the department would provide one, but none was forthcoming at the time of publication.

Texas goes after abortion

Texas's Republican Gov. 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 vs. Wade.

Then COVID-19 came along, and Abbott banned 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 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.

Some Texas Republicans have not tried very hard to hide their glee over these developments. 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 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 — but with COVID-19, Israel's courts were closed 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on 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 said 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, centre left, and Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, centre right, walk together on the sideline of the summit of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on 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 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 placed second in the popular vote, to govern without normal democratic checks for 21 months was soon abandoned in the face of resistance by outraged opposition parties.

In Alberta, Jason Kenney's UCP government was accused of staging a power grab of its own when it passed the controversial Bill 10, which gives it sweeping emergency powers that some have called an affront to constitutional liberties.

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


  • This story has been updated from a previous version that stated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed the courts two days before his fraud trial was to start. In fact, the emergency order to close the courts was made by Netanyahu's justice minister, Amir Ohana. The story has also been updated to include reference to Alberta's Bill 10, which expands the provincial government's emergency powers.
    Apr 23, 2020 11:50 AM ET


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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