DemocracyWatch: Global Pandemic Power Grabs

Yves here. Congratulations to openDemocracy, SourceMaterial and Privacy International for compiling this important information on how the pandemic is becoming a tool to justify oppression and increased surveillance.

Originally published at openDemocracy

The coronavirus does not discriminate. It can attack anyone, young or old, rich or poor. But when it comes to its wider effects, not everyone suffers the same.

Around the world, women, minorities and other marginalised groups have often been disproportionately affected by draconian curbs on their rights.

As openDemocracy revealed this week, millions of women around the world will struggle to get sexual and reproductive healthcare with thousands of clinics closed. As this newsletter is being pinged into your inbox, Poland is considering proposals to tighten its abortion laws – a move that was abandoned four years ago amid widespread protests.

Meanwhile, governments from Cambodia to Turkey have seized on the pandemic as a chance to increase repression and consolidate their power. In China, Beijing has even imposed restrictions on academic research into the origins of the virus.

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  • France Medef, the representative of big employers, suggestedparing back bank holidays, paid leave and working hours as part of the post-crisis recovery.
  • Italy The Mafia is exploiting the pandemic to exert more control over the country’s poor by buying food, according to ‘Gomorrah’ author Roberto Saviano.
  • UK Technology companies including Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon are urging the government to delay a long-awaited digital services tax to give them “more breathing space” in the coronavirus crisis.
  • Russia One person was killed and hundreds injured when inmates rioted in a Siberan prison. Reports suggested that guards had been taken advantage of lack of outside scrutiny to beat prisoners.
  • Ukraine 5,000 coronavirus testing kits imported from China were allegedly set aside for exclusive use by members of parliament and other senior public officials, according to documents obtained by Slidstvo.
  • Germany Romanian officials called on Germany to halt packed flights taking its citizens to work on farms in Germany at a risk to their health.
  • Serbia Police said they detained the director of a state-run retirement home after a coronavirus outbreak there, Al Jazeera reported.
  • Italy and Malta officially stopped rescue operations and closed their ports to refugees due to the crisis, with Libya also declaring its seaports “unsafe”, abandoning hundreds of migrants in mid-ocean.
  • Greece Homeless asylum seekers were reportedly fined for being outside and harrassed by police.
  • Poland MPs were due on Wednesday to consider proposals to tighten abortion laws, prompting accusations that the government is exploiting the crisis to avoid protests that helped scupper a similar bill in 2016.


  • Tanzania Three media outlets were fined for spreading“misleading and untrue” information, according to the communications regulator. They had been critical of President John Magafuli’s claim that the virus could not survive in a church.
  • Morocco Security services have arrested 30,898 people for jeopardising nationwide efforts against the virus. People convicted of violating state-of-emergency measures, including failing to wear masks in public, face prison sentences of one to three months and fines.
  • Ethiopia A state of emergency granted sweeping powers to the president followed the indefinite postponement of elections originally due last August. Emergency laws have previously been misused to crack down on citizens’ rights, the opposition said.
  • Sudan Doctors said they were beaten by police while responding to the crisis.
  • South Africa Schools have been vandalised, burgled or set alight across the country since the start of the lockdown. In Johannesburg prison officials faked virus precautions during an inspection.
  • Congo a video circulated online of the police in Kinshasa assaulting a taxi driver for violating a one-passenger limit.
  • Senegal Video showed police swiping at fleeing protesters with batons on the first night of curfew as those in crowded accommodation struggle to  stick to the rules.
  • Uganda Police broke down doors and forced people out of informal settlements in a village in the north of the country, injuring thirty women and an unknown number of men.


  • US Google and Apple are developing technology to track users automatically without the need to download a dedicated app. Major companies are furloughing employees while paying shareholder dividends despite a pledge last year to defend workers’ interests. Several states ordered abortion centres to close as ‘non-essential businesses’ while many ‘essential’ pro-life centres remain open.
  • Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro was accused of undermining Brazil’s fight against the virus by its health minister, having twice considered illegally overruling state-level lockdowns.
  • Chile A group of senators attempted to include military agents convicted for human rights abuses under the dictatorship of Augusto Pincochet in an emergency prisoner release scheme.
  • Bolivia The government made disinformation over the pandemic punishable by up to ten years in prison, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to warn of the “dangerous possibility of abuse against journalists”.
  • Mexico Migrants have been arbitrarily detained in violation of international law.
  • Colombia Armed groups are threatening brutal enforcement measures to prevent the spread of the virus.


  • China  Beijing has imposed restrictions on academic researchinto the origins of the virus. Africans living in Guangzhou reported enforced random testing and quarantines despite having no symptoms or contact with known patients. McDonald’s apologised after a restaurant banned black people amid worries over infected foreigners. Detained human rights lawyer Qin Yongpei was denied a meeting with his attorney to “prevent the spread of the virus”.
  • India  Police in the northern state of Rajasthan arrested over 6,000 people between 22 March and 13 April for violating lockdown orders, officials said. Muslims have been targeted in a wave of violence across the country after India’s health ministry repeatedly blamed an Islamic seminary for spreading the virus and party officials spoke of ““corona jihad”.
  • Bangladesh 29 local government officials were arrested for alleged corruption and theft of food meant for the poor during the lockdown. A local surveillance company claims it can “track down infected people” with a facial recognition system able to recognise someone wearing a mask with 87% accuracy.
  • Cambodia Parliament passed an emergency law granting its leader, Hun Sen, new powers including unlimited surveillance of telecommunications and greater control of the press and social media, as well as the ability to seize property. Police arrested a journalist and revoked the licence of his news site, TVFB, after he quoted the prime minister on the economic consequences of the pandemic.
  • Philippines The government will force the publication of names of patients who have tested positive for the virus, cabinet secretary Karlo Nograles said.
  • Indonesia Police have charged 51 people for allegedly spreading misinformation about coronavirus and arrested a young man accused of criticising the government’s refusal to introduce a lockdown.
  • Turkey The country’s highest court will rule on a controversial amnesty law that provides for the release of tens of thousands of prisoners but would keep journalists and dissenters behind bars.
  • Armenia The government asked parliament to approvelegislation that could weaken freedom of information laws, a move environmental campaigners say would benefit mining interests at the expense of communities.
  • Azerbaijan At least sixteen opposition activists have been detained since the outbreak began, a coalition of opposition parties said in a statement. Residents are now required to send an SMS notification before leaving their houses, while over-65s are banned from leaving home at all.
  • Pakistan Personal details of people infected with the virus, including their phone numbers and addresses, were leaked and circulated across messaging apps in Baluchistan.
  • Singapore The lead developer of TraceTogether, one of the most high-profile virus tracking apps, said the technology could never replace manual contact tracing and that attempts to “big data your way out of a no-data situation” are an “an exercise in hubris”.
  • Myanmar police have been using anti-terror legislation to crackdown on independent media.

Middle East

  • Saudi Arabia The government stepped up deportations of thousands of Ethiopians, including some suspected of suffering from coronavirus, an act that migrant advocates described as reckless and inhumane.
  • Bahrain A journalist jailed since 2015 was put in solitary confinement after disputing reports that authorities had taken measures to protect prisoners.
  • United Arab Emirates The chief minister of India’s Kerala state urged his prime minister to repatriate Indian workers in the UAE, expressing alarm at the country’s “inadequate isolation and quarantine facilities”.
  • Iraq A deep-seated distrust of the government is impeding the fight against coronavirus, health officials told The New York Times.
  • Qatar The lockdown of a densely populated neighbourhood for immigrant workers will be lifted gradually, a government spokeswoman said.
  • Jordan The owner and news director of Roya TV were arrestedafter broadcasting a report on people suffering financial difficulties due to the lockdown.
  • Egypt A proposed law will demand compulsory donations to the government depending on income.
  • Lebanon Political parties are taking over aid distribution in the absence of the state.



  • US A new website, Pandemic Policy, is tracking how the pandemic “has unintentionally sparked changes pushed by reformers for decades”.

On Wednesday 22 April, openDemocracy’s Peter Geoghegan will be joining writer Oliver Bullough and journalist Carole Cadwalladr to discuss dark money and data in British politics in the first of a series of After Lockdown webinars. Book tickets for free here.

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  1. Off The Street

    Over at Marginal Revolution, the first two articles today are about riots and PPE shortages. That second one included many economisms about elasticies and even, as they phrase it, so-called price-gouging.

    Reading those reminded me of a quote from that great sage of street and ring, Mike Tyson. He said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

    In Marginal terms, every price-gouger has a plan until the buyer brings along a pitchfork. There may be some room for elasticities and such, however the price signaling that is perceived by the buyer isn’t making it all the way back to the producer without some distortion.

    TL;DR – Everyone hates a gouger, who tries to profit from the misery of others.

  2. The Historian

    Did you forget Trump’s current threat to shut down Congress? This is so reminiscent of the Tsar’s attempted shutdown of the Duma and the attempted shut down of France’s National Assembly. Any president who would even consider such a thing is thinking like a dictator. If he gets away with this, he is saying that he has the power to decide when Congress sits and when it doesn’t, i.e., that Congress serves at his will. Is that what the Founding Fathers intended? And some of you want four more years of this?

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I do not understand Trump’s threat to shut down Congress. But what he seems to intend still seems to conform to the Constitution — which is not to say I don’t share your concerns for what it might mean for Presidential Powers or Presidential aims and intent. Practically speaking do you still believe the Congress operates as a ‘check’ to balance the power of the President? I am not sure why the President cares whether Congress is in session or not. They are not … borrowing here from the Movie “Oblivion” an ‘effective team’ and I am not sure how their presence or absence modifies Trumps powers. And in any case both the Congress and Trump appear to serve the same masters — though there do appear to be different ‘flavors’ of Master. The Oligarchs are “heterogeneous” in their interests — the Oligarchy does contain some competition between different groups intent on exploiting the same portions of the Populace — I suppose much as different parasites contend for their place sucking the life from their host.

      1. The Historian

        Perhaps you should read the Constitution, particularly Article 2, Section 3 before you say that Trump “still seems to intend still seems to conform to the Constitution”. Only in extraordinary circumstances, when the House and Senate cannot agree on adjournment, can the President adjourn Congress. That is NOT the case here. Trump wants to adjourn Congress, against their wishes, so that he can make recess appointments.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          “… against their wishes …”? “… against their wishes …”? ?????
          Are you referring to the US Congress? The term “extraordinary circumstances” as interpreted by the present Supreme Court would appear to offer Trump considerable leeway.

          1. Grayce

            The disagreement itself makes the case extraordinary and worthy of note. External, or arbitrary, extraordinariness is not the meaning.

        2. Jeremy Grimm

          I take umbrage at your suggestion that I read the Constitution, Article 2, Section 3. You should search out and listen to Howard Zinn’s speech: “Second Thoughts on the First Amendment”.

          I might hold the words of the Constitution in greater esteem if I could somehow believe that the present US Supreme Court held the words of the Constitution in greater esteem.

      2. Grayce

        If Congress is not in session, he may believe he is in charge of everything. There are two little hints he has given with a “heh-heh” at the end: First, maybe he will be president for life, and second, maybe he will tinker with the timing of the November election and blame it on the coronavirus. Stranger things have gone on in Washington. Trust him to bluster a way to get a fifth year to work on the rest.

    2. JTMcPhee

      Some of who? Either “choice” is the door with the hungry tiger behind it.

      I’m reminded of the trick pulled by nascent the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, announcing that the Court has the power to review acts of Congress, but “we choose not to exercise that power in this case.”

      Massive change tends to happen all in a rush.

  3. Rod

    Public Service Bulletin from Open Democracy/Privacy International/Source Material
    Kudos for seeing the need.
    Tracking is going to be necessary to see what ground has been ceded and what we will have to fight for again, as well as to imagine what might be possible.

  4. voislav

    I’ll chime in one the Serbian case, which has nothing to do with state oppression, quite the opposite. The director of the elderly care facility concealed the outbreak, causing it to spread among the residents. This is a state facility, not private, and the director is state appointed and a member of the ruling party.

    This is a part of governments efforts to look marginally competent before the election, which is to be held a soon as the state of the emergency is over (it was scheduled for end of April). The government there Trumped the coronavirus response, holding a press conference at the end of February with the president in attendance. The doctor representing the government (Nestorovic) called the virus the most laughable virus in the history of mankind and recommended that people should make shopping trips to Italy, as all the store would be running sales because of the epidemic.

    A week later the government declared state of emergency and has rapidly introduce more and more stringent oppression measures, including 24-hour curfew on weekends, a permanent 24-hour curfew for over 65, arrests of journalists reporting on shortages of PPE and 3-year jail-sentences for people breaking curfew.

    The government is in a tough position, their popularity is plummeting as the president has gone fully delusional during this epidemic. They have no way to postpone the elections, as they have already disbanded the parliament, so the elections are automatically on 38 days after the end of the state of emergency. So they are resorting to desperate measures, like arresting their own people for incompetence, to create an appearance of law and order.

  5. Joe G

    In Brazil, it’s not (yet, at least) the federal government that grabbing power, but the states and municipalities, most of them taking unconstitutional measures. Bolsonaro, as of now, is trying to keep the law.

  6. K teh

    To discuss what needs to be done, we are going to have to be a little politically incorrect. Given unemployment heading toward 20% and the mortgage market melting, maybe we can get by the moderators. Small business is far more essential than big business, the latter largely being zombies held up by the military backed petrodollar at expense to the rest of the world, financed by Fed operations. Increasing the relative size of debt-dependent organizations is not going to improve the result.

    Assets Under Management, top-down financial leverage:

    A = L + OE. Loans are an asset to the banks, until they aren’t and blow up, when demographics decelerate. Labor is a cost in Revenue – Expense serving the debt. Buy and hold drives OE to zero relative to inflation. With nothing productive to scale, living standards fall for most, who are considered costs.

    Small Business, bottom-up operational leverage:

    OE = A – L. Loans are a liability to the borrower. Those receiving interest get rich and a bailout. Those paying interest get poor and pay for the bailout. L is driven to zero.

    Algebra tells us that 0 = 0 under monolithic conditions – globalization. The electronic money narrative is an illusion, allowing each tribe to blame the other, ensuring no change.

    A mortgage was 5 years. Now it’s 30 years with interest front-loaded and zoning ensures price inflation, on a depreciating asset. Every ‘business’ cycle the bottom [part of the economic ladder is cut off, little principle is paid, and the bank sells the same home many times. Refinancing serves the same purpose.

    Without price inflation driven by electronic money, there is no way an ‘investor’ could buy a home and have renters pay all the costs plus profit, to support the landlord pyramid. The Fed is trapped because demographics are decelerating, the millenials are loaded with bad education debt, and there is little real money in the system to cover the taxes necessary to pay interest on the exploding debt.

    We know the problem. Banks have an economic hill to climb and they have removed the bottom half of the economy, far past the NPV calculation window. They cannot pull real productivity forward, leaving those dependent on MMT welfare to helplessly watch the collapse.

    Small business doesn’t work the way anyone was taught in class and it’s not democratic. We want to incentivize labor to employ the tools, employed to crush them over the last 50 years, to effectively increase operational leverage and reinstall the bottom half of the economy. That’s why labor superintendents existed back in the day.

    Labor knows what to do; it just needs an NPV window incentive for its children to do it. So long as Family Law exists – taking all past, present and future investments with no due process – there is no reason for labor to participate. But let’s assume that problem is going to be solved in due course (all politics is local).

    We are going to employ a floating Gantt Chart. Line#1, left side is the balance sheet for increasingly efficient continuing operations. On the right is effective new product development. The last line, not the first as assumed, is where the model pops out.

  7. CJ

    Trillions in new spending at their fingertips — the workers all screaming to be made safe at any cost — enhanced powers to track and spy on the workers…I’d say the politicians are going to look back on 2020 with fond memories. It’s shaping up to be a banner year for the political class.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      Storming the Bastille seems like a tempting metaphor but the last time it was nearly impossible to clean house. Lots of pasties lost their heads and fat cats snuck off whistling happily.

      If you were setting up a global structure for finance in a green field, what would you build? The structure of debt and currency seems rotten, not to mention the structure of the internet and the surveillance state. The ability for the US to fund its defense empire seems to be the root of some problems from what I can see.

      Just musing here.

      1. RBHoughton

        The assets are all out there Pym just sequestered by their notional owners temporarily. Offer the right return and they’ll come flooding back where we can all see them.

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