An Illiberal Plague

An Illiberal Plague

COVID-19 is much more than a public health or economic nightmare. The virus has transformed society all over the world and triggered rapid political change, some of which may go unnoticed. As people struggle to adapt to stay-at-home orders and an unpredictable economy, state authorities are implementing changes that provide them with greater control and flexibility to monitor citizens and prevent the further spread of disease. Yet, as governments invoke the public health dangers of COVID-19 to expand emergency powers and surveillance programs, they risk accelerating the damage that the last few years have inflicted on liberal democracy. 

Globalization and populism have advanced a trend toward illiberal governance in many parts of the world. Until recently, countries like Hungary, Poland, and India were widely held as established democracies. But these and countries like them have experienced vast and systemic change in a short period of time, in part due to the autocratic tendencies of leaders who have legitimized expansions of power by pointing to crises—such as Europe’s migrant crisis—or scapegoating minorities. Illiberalism is its own type of disease; as governments normalize less liberal standards of governance, other countries may be similarly infected with this illiberal plague.

New Norms of State Power

Spurred by the public health threat of COVID-19, governments are invoking emergency powers to combat the ballooning crisis. There are positive features of this response, such as facilitating greater mobilization of healthcare resources. Indeed, at the local level, a U.S. governor declaring a state of emergency is necessary to lay groundwork for compelling people to stay home—for example, by closing schools and businesses. 

But, there is a darker side. Authoritarian leaders can leverage chaos and fear to inflate their own power. In Hungary, Victor Orban used the spread of disease to suspend parliament, elections, and gain approval to rule by decree. In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party blamed the pandemic on the country’s Muslim minority, thereby strengthening its Hindu nationalist agenda, and expanded curfews and police powers. Citing security threats from the pandemic, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party tried to change the constitution to extend the president’s term by two years and cancel upcoming presidential elections. The proposal undermines European Commission electoral guidelines stating that “electoral law must enjoy a certain stability, protecting it against party political manipulation.”

While these power grabs are unlikely to become the norm, actions of leaders in Western democracies demonstrate that norms are shifting. Across Europe, governments implemented total lockdowns, in some cases requiring citizens to carry paperwork when they leave the house to shop or exercise. Violators are often fined. In Spain, local officials in Catalonia and Basque country worried that the Spanish government’s state of alarm would limit their regional authority. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s Coronavirus Act allows police to detain anyone they think is infected with the virus. While that law also contains provisions to ease economic hardship and mobilize the health sector, it disrupts the functioning of democratic processes by postponing recall petitions and reducing term lengths of local councilors, elected mayors, and Police and Crime Commissioners. Opponents to the bill decry its lengthy time span of two years, and potential for human rights abuses. 

In the United States, Donald Trump has said that he has “the right to do a lot of things” and even declared himself a “wartime president.” Many of these “things” are not known to the public or even Congress. According to Elizabeth Coitein and Andrew Boyle of the Brennan Center for Justice, classified documents set forth emergency powers that a U.S. president may invoke during “extraordinary situations”—but these documents have not been subject to Congressional oversight and certainly not public review. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has requested emergency powers from Congress to allow judges to detain accused persons without a trial. 

Extending the Reach of Surveillance

One aspect of increasing state authority is the expansion of the surveillance of citizens, under the guise of improving the public health response to the pandemic. In China, authorities quickly harnessed existing surveillance infrastructure, including drones, to identify, monitor, and track quarantined persons. Hong Kong implemented electronic wristband tracking, similar to the technology used to monitor people under criminal court supervision in the United States. Russia told residents of Moscow that the city’s 170,000 cameras will help enforce strict stay-at-home policies. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Shin Bet, a state intelligence agency, would apply counterterrorism technology that uses mobile data to track at-risk individuals. 

Perhaps, such steps are not surprising for the Chinese Communist Party or the Kremlin, given their preexisting penchant for surveilling citizens. But trends in the Western world suggest that the application of—and tolerance for—mass surveillance is spreading. Germany, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Austria, Norway, and Belgium all have cut deals with telecommunications firms to acquire mobile data on millions of citizens to monitor travel. Belgium, like China, is using drones to conduct contract-tracing and supervise social-distancing. As of April 15, the European Commission is introducing a “joint toolbox” to compile and share mobile location data across the continent. 

Europe is considered a bastion of data privacy, but countries are quickly transitioning from strict data privacy regimes to allowing governments to access personal data. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) lays out vast data protections for individuals, and expressly prohibits firms from gathering personal data without consent. While European governments might argue that maintaining anonymity adequately protects individual privacy, the reality is that data can be easy to de-anonymize if the motive exists. 

This pandemic is demonstrating that a cultural shift around surveillance can happen quickly, which may be welcome news for governments inclined toward illiberalism and facing less domestic or international objection to practices that expand surveillance of citizens. In the United States, the Trump administration is leveraging the public health disaster to implement a surveillance system of its own. A task force led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is harnessing private sector data to develop a so-called “national coronavirus surveillance system.” Government officials nationwide are accessing geolocation data from mobile advertising firms to track users, and smart phone app developers are mining social media posts to facilitate contact-tracing. 

Changing cultural and government standards could engender a relaxed regulatory environment for private companies in the United States and overseas, allowing firms like Amazon and Google to wade deeper into the business of surveillance. Already, Amazon has implemented thermal cameras to monitor employee temperatures using technology from a firm that the U.S. government “blacklisted” for its role in helping China surveil minorities.

Furthermore, experts worry that some of these practices may violate health privacy laws. Others point out that national security threats allow authorities to wave such restrictions. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services relaxed enforcement of HIPAA Rules purportedly to improve telehealth. But history illustrates how government powers conferred as “temporary” measures in times of crises eventually can become the new normal. For example, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act in response to the September 11 attacks, granting the executive broad surveillance powers. Congress has renewed it multiple times over the past two decades and invoked it for surveillance activities beyond the scope of the Act’s stated purpose to counter violent extremism. While surveillance measures have the power to enforce social distancing and track infections, they also represent a profound shift in standards of federal power that could be difficult to reverse. 

Confronting the Illiberal Forces of COVID-19

In the United States, policymakers at all levels of government will have to balance public health needs with ensuring the strength of liberal democratic institutions. The House should challenge the Trump administration’s claims of power. If technology to track the disease also significantly expands government insight into citizens’ movements, then lawmakers will have to impose limitations on the type and quantity of data that can be extracted. 

It is wishful thinking that the societal changes resulting from the pandemic will not have a significant or long-term effect on the health of democratic institutions and governance. All over the democratic world, shifting standards of government and technology may reinforce the last decade’s trend toward illiberalism. Lawmakers should not allow fear of the pandemic to diminish their continuing responsibility to protect democratic processes, individual freedom, and privacy, each of which is a fundamental pillar of liberal democracy. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.