The iron hand is out

The coronavirus pandemic has come in handy for governments to tighten their hold by curbing civil liberties and cracking down on political opponents, critics and vulnerable sections of people, including migrant labour.

Published : May 19, 2020 07:00 IST

President Donald Trump speaking in a meeting on the COVID-19 crisis at the White House on April 30.

President Donald Trump speaking in a meeting on the COVID-19 crisis at the White House on April 30.

M any governments around the world have been using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to intensify crackdowns on human rights and peaceful protests. The Indian government, unfortunately, is no exception. The Narendra Modi government has been using the national lockdown to move against people involved in peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi, and there have been some arrests. A first information report (FIR) was registered against Delhi Minorities Commission Chairman Zafarul Islam Khan on April 30 for sedition and for promoting enmity between groups on the basis of religion, race and place of birth. The charges were based on a social media post by Khan.

Many countries are freeing political prisoners and even common criminals temporarily to prevent the spread of the pandemic in overcrowded prisons. The Indian authorities, however, are showing no such considerations. Kashmiri politicians and intellectuals accused of sedition continue to be incarcerated, many of them in places far from home.

U.N. warning

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement in late April calling on governments to ensure that human rights were not violated “under the guise of exceptional or emergency measures” to combat the pandemic. “Emergency powers should not be a weapon government can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power. They should be used to effectively deal with the pandemic—nothing more, nothing less,” Bachelet said. She emphasised that the restrictions imposed should be “necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory”.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said that the pandemic is triggering or exacerbating various human rights violations. “We are seeing stigma, hate speech, and white supremacists and other extremists seeking to exploit the situation. We are seeing discrimination in accessing health services,” he said in a recent speech. “And there are growing manifestations of authoritarianism, including limits on the media, civic space and freedom of expression.”

Not only authoritarian governments but also the so-called democratic ones have used the crisis to bring entire populations under surveillance and cut civil liberties. Many governments have justified intensified surveillance on the grounds that location tracking and facial recognition were essential in the “war” against the virus. The “Aarogya Setu” app, which the Indian government wants citizens to download, has alarmed large sections of civil society. Experts have warned that it vastly expands the state’s surveillance capabilities.

The case of Israel

Israel was the first country to officially allow the use of cellphone data to monitor the spread of the virus. (India and Israel are known to cooperate closely in the cyber security sphere.) The Israeli government says the new security measures it has introduced will be in place for only six months, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has dubbed the move as “a corona coup” against human rights. Israel’s domestic secret service, the Shin Bet, has been routinely collecting cellphone meta data since 2002. Israeli laws allow the Prime Minister to order cellphone companies to hand over data “to perform the functions of the security forces or to exercise their powers”.

The Palestinian population has been kept under constant surveillance with the help of cellular technology for a long time. Now, Israel has used the pandemic to announce plans for the formal annexation of the West Bank. According to an agreement signed in April between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition leader, Benny Glantz, for the formation of a coalition government, the main focus will be on combating the coronavirus and the advancement of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which gives the Israeli government a carte blanche for the official takeover of the West Bank. From all indications, the Netanyahu administration is all set to formally annex the whole of the Jordan valley in the next few months. Violent attacks against Palestinians have spiked since the beginning of April as Jewish settlers, helped by the Israeli army, seek to drive out more Palestinians from their land.


Invasive surveillance systems helped the Singapore and South Korean governments (and also many Western nations) to track infected citizens. Singapore is anyway one of the most tightly policed states in the world, even in the best of times. All the same, after its initial success, the Singapore government is now fighting an uphill battle to bring the virus under control. By the end of April, Singapore, notwithstanding its small population, became one of the worst affected nations in the region. Only India and China had registered higher numbers of infected people than Singapore.

The packed dormitories occupied by the country’s large migrant workforce have now become coronavirus hotbeds. Eight to 10 workers, mostly from India and Bangladesh, typically share one room. Singapore had limited its community testing to citizens, leaving the migrant labour force largely unattended. Alagu Periyakarrupan, a 44-year-old construction worker who worked in the city state since he was in his early thirties without any citizenship rights, was found dead in a Singapore hospital stairwell in late April. He left behind a wife and three daughters in Tamil Nadu.

The Singapore government keeps emphasising “low community transmission” among its citizens, indirectly shifting the blame for the spreading contagion on “the high migrant cases”.

Malaysia, with an estimated 5.5 million migrant workers, followed up its May 1 announcement of lockdown relaxations with a decision to crack down on its migrant workforce. Hundreds of migrant workers and undocumented refugees from COVID-19 “red zones” were arrested. The new Malay-centric government, which replaced the multi-ethnic coalition government led by Mahathir Mohammed, has announced that all undocumented workers will be put in detention centres. Latent anti-immigrant feelings are now out in the open as the coronavirus has dealt a body blow to the economy.

Reports from across the world

Bachelet pointed out that there were reports from different parts of the world about police and security forces using “excessive, and at times lethal, force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews”. Nigerian security forces killed more than 15 people by mid April. There were reports of high-handedness by security forces from other African countries, too; in South Africa, videos of police brutality went viral.

In Egypt, President Abdel Fatah al Sisi has used the pandemic to consolidate his authoritarian rule. Anyone breaking the 11-hour night-time curfew is fined the equivalent of US$250 or given a long jail term. Egyptian jails are among the most overcrowded in the world, and a large proportion of the inmates are political prisoners. More than a thousand doctors and health care workers are also in prison. In the third week of April, the Egyptian parliament extended emergency rule and gave the President additional powers. In the first week of May, Shady Habash, a 24-year-old film-maker who was in prison for the last two years, passed away. His crime was producing a music video caricaturing the Egyptian President.

Algeria has used the pandemic as a cover to crack down on the opposition. Before the pandemic struck, Algerians from all walks of life and different political persuasions were staging protests every Friday for more than a year, demanding genuine political reforms and fair and free elections. Now, with large gatherings banned, the Algerian authorities have moved against protest leaders and journalists.

Bachelet said that the poorest and most vulnerable sections often ended up as victims of human rights violations by regimes. In some countries, thousands of people have been arrested for violating curfews, which, Bachelet said, was a practice that was both unnecessary and unsafe. “Jails and prisons are high-risk environments, and states should focus on releasing whoever can be safely released, not detaining more people,” she said.

In many Muslim countries, strict lockdowns during the holy month of Ramadan have become an emotive issue. This is the first time that the faithful are not allowed to congregate freely in the mosques because of the pandemic. Some governments, like that of Pakistan, have relaxed restrictions after demands by influential clerics. The pandemic has not been brought under control in Pakistan so far.

In Europe, Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban got legislation approved that gives him the power to rule by decree and allows him to abrogate laws to protect the country “against the coronavirus”. The parliament has been prorogued and elections are indefinitely postponed. The emergency laws stipulate a five-year prison sentence for spreading “false news”. Most of the media in Hungary are controlled by the ruling party.

(The Indian Supreme Court had denied the Modi government’s request to monitor the media. However, journalists in India have started facing the heat. One journalist based in the Andamans was briefly arrested on charges of spreading false information about the pandemic, although he was only fulfilling his professional responsibilities on the basis of available information.)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially refused to order a lockdown and kept on insisting that the “wheels of the economy” had to be kept running, despite the country having the ninth highest number of coronavirus cases by early April. The mounting death toll forced him to change course. The media in Turkey have anyway been muzzled for some time. Now, with the pandemic raging, Erdogan is taking an even tougher line with critics. The arrest of a truck driver who had criticised government policy in a social media post shows the extreme lengths to which the regime can go.

Like the Indian Prime Minister’s “PM Cares” Fund that was set up in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Erdogan has floated one called the “national solidarity campaign” fund, over which he has full control. He kick-started the campaign by pledging seven months’ salary to the fund. The Turkish government pressured business leaders and others to come up with sizeable contributions. At the same time, the central government in Ankara shut down similar fund-raising efforts by the Mayor of Istanbul and opposition figures.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a six month “state of calamity” in mid March and has since threatened to declare “martial law”. He accuses the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which has been fighting the central government for the last 50 years, of disrupting the flow of relief supplies meant for people affected by the pandemic. The country’s security services have been accused of using excessive force while enforcing the lockdown ordered by the government. Duterte has ordered the armed forces to shoot “troublemakers”.

Like most governments all over the world, the Philippine government has left the poor to mostly fend for themselves under lockdown. A statement from the women’s rights group Gabriela said: “Using excessive force and detention will not quell the hunger in the empty stomachs of Filipinos who up to this day remain denied of the promised cash aid to the poor.”

Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army ruler who has donned civilian garb, has assumed more powers to impose curfews and suppress the media.

Bachelet warned against the “excessive use of force” in Latin America, saying that her office had received reports of arrests and detentions as part of heavy-handed enforcement of quarantine measures. Jail riots have broken out all over Latin America as prisoners protest against overcrowded conditions and lack of basic amenities, and hundreds of prisoners have been killed in these uprisings.

The country worst hit in the region is Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to control the narrative and impose his will have failed miserably. Unlike most world leaders, the maverick Brazilian President has been busy trying to downplay the impact of the coronavirus despite the rising number of deaths in the country—the highest in the region. The President’s political future is now in peril as many of his own supporters have turned their back on him and called for his impeachment.

The Chilean government, which had been rocked by months of protests, declared a “state of catastrophe” on March 18 and deployed the army in the capital and the major cities, bringing the protests to an end. In Bolivia, the coup leaders who ousted the democratically elected President Evo Morales are using the pandemic as an excuse to further stifle the opposition and the media. The elections scheduled for May have now been postponed to the end of the year. Morales, who has been barred from running, and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party are not being allowed to campaign freely. Many of its leaders have either been arrested or forced to flee the country.

Recent history shows that once governments introduce surveillance measures rarely do they withdraw them. The American whistle-blower Edward Snowden has warned that the security measures adopted by many states may continue well after the pandemic is over. The surveillance systems introduced after 9/11 by the United States government are not only intact but have been enhanced.

No international cohesiveness

As the U.N. Secretary General has pointed out, there is no international cohesiveness in fighting the pandemic. Countries are following different strategies, with some countries like Sweden, Belarus and Turkmenistan carrying on with life as usual. The infection and mortality rate in Sweden have been higher than in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, where lockdown measures are in force. Even more dangerous is the move by the Trump administration to completely shirk responsibility for its handling of the pandemic and shift all blame to China. Despite his own intelligence community coming to the conclusion that there was absolutely no evidence that the virus strain had escaped from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, Trump and his close associates continue to claim that they have evidence to prove otherwise. The American President says that he plans to sue China for reparations and is encouraging other countries to do likewise. The international community has so far not taken Trump’s allegations seriously, the only exception being Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. America’s close allies, France and the United Kindom, have stressed that this is not the time to apportion blame and the international focus should be squarely on the fight against the pandemic.


Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment