The global fight against the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020 has restricted basic civil freedoms, weakening some human rights and, furthermore, it facilitates a possible slide of the Western rule of Law towards a new, more authoritarian model.
New Guinea banned all demonstrations until further notice, citing the fight against COVID-19. Hungary is in a state of emergency until February. Singapore approved anti-virus systems that violate individual privacy, and the lists goes on
At the end of November “more than half of the countries in the world (61%) have adopted strict public measures to combat COVID-19, which are worrisome from the point of view of democracy and human rights”, according to the NGO International Idea. “This was often seen in countries that are already undemocratic, but also in democracies”, stated the NGO.
In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned: “Given the exceptional nature of the crisis, it is clear that States need additional powers (…). However, if the rule of law is not respected, the health emergency runs the risk of becoming a human rights catastrophe”.
“Since the Coronavirus broke out, democratic conditions and human rights have deteriorated in 80 countries,” says the American NGO Freedom House, which denounces governments that have organized to isolate their countries, silence critics and dismantle counterpowers, like Sri Lanka,” an illustration of the general trend.
In China, the authorities have adopted extremely coercive measures, with the strict confinement of very large areas, and massive surveillance by drones. And they have proclaimed their success in the fight against Coronavirus, despite statistics that are not always transparent.
In Egypt, a country “well known for its authoritarian practices and the closure of political and civic space,” the Pandemic has simply offered the government an opportunity to enact and apply repressive norms that consolidate already established practices” says researchers from the American think tank Atlantic Council and the Italian think tank Ispi.
“Permanent state of emergency”
But the impact on freedoms is not limited to totalitarian or illiberal regimes. It is felt in liberal democracies too, obviously in a much less brutal way. There, antiCovid measures are gradually changing the rule of law. And they must be “interpreted as the symptoms and signs of a broader experiment, in which a new paradigm of government of people and things is at stake,” according to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
“Emergency powers carry a risk of abuse of power by the executive and can remain within the national legal framework once the emergency is over,” the European Parliament warned in November.
Curfews, forbidden gatherings, closed shops
In Paris, Berlin and London, citizens, accustomed for decades to enjoying great freedom, guaranteed by the rule of law, have their freedom restricted. And this after other control measures already adopted in the fight against terrorism.
“What is happening today marks the end of the rule of law and of bourgeois democracies, which were already profoundly transformed,” says Freedom House, “the voluntary creation of a state of permanent emergency (although it is not declared in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including those that are called democratic”, they added.
In France, for example, with the state of health emergency, “we have a process quite similar to the state of emergency in terms of security”, explains Laureline Fontaine, professor of public and constitutional law at the Sorbone Nouvelle University, with “permanently modified” rules. “Political speeches tend to assure us of the exceptional nature of the state of emergency. But the process in question is a modification of the law that is not provisional,” he warns.
“Contempt for the law”
Furthermore, control instruments do not always fulfill their function. “The idea is that constitutions are the most effective tools to limit powers. Today they are not. The foundations of constitutionalism are crumbling,” says Fontaine.
“We have gotten used to living without freedom,” he estimates. In the face of the Pandemic, “there is a general adherence in principle to the objective sought and, therefore, we do not monitor the way in which the law is produced, arguing that it is more important to act, I have observed in the last 20 years a form of disregard for the law in the face of concrete actions,” he concluded.
Giogrio Agamben, another European political science Profesor, is even more pessimistic: “If people have accepted the despotic measures and the unprecedented limitations to which they have been subjected without any guarantee, it is not only out of fear of the Pandemic, but presumably because, more or less unconsciously, they knew that the world in which they lived until then could not continue, that it was too unfair and inhuman, it goes without saying that governments are preparing for an even more inhuman, even more unjust world,” he adds.