During the Middle Ages, as the bubonic plague advanced across Europe, cities in Italy closed their ports, isolated plague victims, quarantined their families, and restricted the movements of all residents. These were extraordinary measures meant for extraordinary times—the Black Death killed more than 25 million Europeans in just four years.
The price of these measures was one that human beings have since willfully given up time and time again in exchange for a sense of security: Their rights. And it’s happening again now.
In order to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments around the world have enacted similar measures, from quarantines and curfews to moves that have essentially paused the global economy. Public health experts say these are necessary to save millions of lives. But they also come with a significant loss of personal liberties. In France and Italy, people can only go outside once a day, armed with a permission form, and are fined if they don’t comply. In South Korea, health officials implemented what’s known as “contract tracing” by tracking Covid-19 patients using GPS data from their cars and cellphones—a significant invasion of privacy by most measures.
The problem with these measures is that seemingly everyone—from liberal democracies to dictatorships—is enacting them. And so it becomes difficult to tell the difference between what’s necessary in the name of the common good and what’s an attempt to extend or consolidate power for the longterm. The major difference may simply come down to the nature of the leader: One would be forgiven for trusting French president Emmanuel Macron more than Russian president Vladimir Putin, for example. But what about the leaders who inhabit a grey zone, somewhere between full-on autocrat and democratic steward? What about Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or US president Donald Trump?
What’s clear is that this situation is an authoritarian leader’s dream. Fear “creates an opportunity for unscrupulous leaders” to seize power, says Chris Edelson, author of “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security.” In emergencies, authoritarians can portray any opposition as anti-patriotism; their popularity typically skyrockets; and the guardrails that exist to prevent governments from seizing too much power tend not to work as well, or at all.
That means this moment isn’t just a test of our ability to live our lives indoors, or of our governments to keep the world economy from crumbling, or of the global community to work together to respond to an unprecedented public health crisis—it’s also a test for liberal democracy itself.
Coronavirus power grabs
Some leaders have gone further than closing down borders, quarantining Covid-19 patients, and forcing people to stay home. Hungary declared a state of emergency—a common tool for leaders to expand or prolong their power—over coronavirus on March 11. Last week, the government proposed a bill (pdf, link in Hungarian) that would extend that state of emergency indefinitely and authorize prime minister Orbán to rule by decree, essentially allowing him to sidestep the country’s parliament. Under the bill, individuals could face up to five years in jail for spreading false information “in such a way as to obstruct or frustrate the effectiveness” of the efforts to fight Covid-19.
“This legislation is very dangerous and it empowers Orbán practically with authoritarian powers,” says Daniel Hegedüs, a non-resident fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, DC-based think tank. But, he says, “the main goal is not just to pass this bill,” but rather to be able to blame the opposition if the death toll from the disease worsens, and to shift attention away from the government’s own response. “It’s a very important win for the government that, just in the last three or four days, the Hungarian media mostly wrote about this legislation, and not the state of the healthcare system.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has prevented his country’s parliament from convening and shut down Israeli courts, a convenient move for a leader up for reelection and facing a criminal trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The trial, which was due to start next week, has now been postponed until May. And in the dead of night on March 17, his government issued a decree authorizing the Israeli police to track the cellphones of Covid-19 patients, or those suspected of having Covid-19, without submitting it for approval from lawmakers.
In Russia, Putin proposed a set of constitutional reforms that Masha Gessen described in the New Yorker as allowing him to “further consolidate his power, perhaps by laying the groundwork for moving to a different job once his term—the last allowed by the current Constitution—is over.” Putin has since backtracked a bit, postponing a referendum on the constitutional amendments, which was set to take place in April. But the possibility of a power grab remains.
Given the nature of the leaders that govern Russia, Hungary, and Israel, it’s perhaps not surprising that they would see this moment as an opportunity to strengthen their power. But it’s also happening in Italy, where in late February, the government enforced a two-week quarantine at dock on nonprofit groups’ search-and-rescue vessels, raising concerns that many more migrants would die at sea.
Meanwhile, in the US, the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked lawmakers last week to extend its powers in a multitude of areas, from asylum requests to prosecutions. These new powers would allow DOJ to request that defendants be detained indefinitely without trial during emergencies.
Edelson draws parallels between this pandemic and 1942, when then-US president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that put more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps on the West Coast after Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. “The lesson we learned from the history of the United States is that you have to be skeptical. When presidents tell you things, it’s not always true. If I were a member of Congress, I would be asking tough questions.”
Overall, Edelson says, emergencies “create more…openings that a would-be authoritarian like Donald Trump can exploit.”
“I was concerned about liberal democracy in the United States before this crisis. I’m even more concerned now.”