Never let a good crisis go to waste
Governments are using the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce authoritarian legislation, writes Eddie Ford
Obviously, emergency situations require emergency measures - the battle against Covid-19 is a struggle for sheer survival. Communists support the policy of social distancing, self-isolation and lockdown as - along with mass testing - it seems the only way to ‘flatten the curve’ until a vaccine comes into operation, which could be up to a year or more away.
But all emergency measures should be strictly time-limited and subject to constant review, questioning, criticism and democratic scrutiny. However, almost inevitably, governments are using the pandemic as a golden opportunity to introduce authoritarian and anti-democratic legislation best summed up by the expression, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.
It will come as no surprise to readers of this publication that an especially enthusiastic advocate of this approach is the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán - as part of his longer-term project of constructing what he calls an “illiberal state”.1 At the end of March, the Budapest parliament voted by 137 to 53 for measures allowing Orbán to rule by decree for an indefinite period. You can now get a five-year jail sentence for “intentionally” spreading “false information” or “false rumours” that hampers government efforts against the pandemic. And anyone who “interferes” with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years - which can be increased to eight if anyone dies as a result.
These new powers could well be used against anyone who violates a curfew, for whatever reason, and are broad enough to potentially sweep in anyone who criticises the authorities’ overall approach or questions a particular measure that might have only a tangential relationship at best to the virus - the government being the ultimate and final arbiter of what constitutes an ‘obstruction’ to the implementation of its anti-pandemic programme. Of course, the Orbán government has a 10-year track record of using state prosecutorial power to harass its political enemies and benefit its friends. In some respects, the new measures are not emergency powers - rather, possibly permanent changes to the criminal law that will not go away when the current emergency is over. For instance, emergency legislation introduced in 2016 to tackle the ‘migration crisis’ is still in force.
After the vote in parliament, the prime minister’s spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács wrote in a blog post that, “just as in wartime”, the state of emergency “could extend until the end of hostilities”, as Hungary is now in “a war-like state to defend our people against a pandemic, the likes of which we have not seen in a century”. He went on to single out a Guardian editorial for taking “liberal media cynicism to new, despicable lows”, when in fact the new provisions were “both adequate and necessary in order to fight malicious disinformation campaigns”. In fact, according to Kovács, liberal or other criticism of the measures are - you guessed it - “fake news”. Criticism is an act of sabotage against the collective national will.
Showing the dangers of a shift towards authoritarianism, with Covid-19 used as a pretext - or ‘weapon of mass distraction’ - immediately after Orbán gained new powers to rule by decree, the government proposed a draft bill to end legal recognition of trans people.2 Aimed at defending ‘family values’ against ‘gender ideology’, the bill states that gender should be defined as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes” - meaning that the state would record people’s “sex at birth” in the Hungarian civil registry and thus makes it impossible for anyone to change their legally recognised gender. Trans people have had trouble amending their official documents since 2018, leading to several legal challenges - while universities are effectively banned from teaching gender studies. The proposed bill would finalise the oppression of trans people, no longer existing in law. Hungary proves that the appetite grows with the eating.
Naturally, Viktor Orbán is hardly alone in spotting a chance for a power grab. Azerbaijan’s strongman, Ilham Aliyev, has stepped up the harassment of opposition groups under the guise of concerting the ‘war’ against Covid-19 - openly threatening to “isolate” his political enemies during this crisis, because “we cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces, the fifth column, national traitors, taking advantage of this situation, to commit any provocation”.
To this end, police officers ordered the closing of the D18 Movement’s Baku office whilst it was broadcasting live, saying that activists could not “gather en masse” due to fears of spreading the coronavirus. At the time, there were only four people in a very large office - with the police refusing to provide a court order or any other official documentation. Yet government offices and schools remain open, showing the real motive behind the police action.
Meanwhile, Israel’s beleaguered prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, quickly took advantage of the pandemic crisis - using an emergency decree to delay the start of his trial on corruption charges, marginalise parliament and enact unprecedented surveillance measures even by Israeli standards. The measures allow its security services to track the mobile-phone and credit-card data of people with suspected coronavirus, which will be used to enforce quarantine and warn those who may have come into contact with infected people. Such ‘cyber-monitoring’ powers, needless to say, are usually reserved for ‘counter-terrorism’ operations. The location data collected through telecommunication companies by Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, will be shared with health officials.
Given that the pandemic serves Netanyahu’s political interests, the Ha’aretz newspaper sarcastically remarked: “that’s the beauty of it, the sophistication of it, as a life raft” - it is “the perfect Machiavellian move that nature created for Netanyahu” and “sure-fire proof that he is god’s messenger” (March 15).3 There are now attempts by Netanyahu to form a national unity government with his main political rival, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party - even if talks appear to be stalling at the moment. But the fact that Bibi is still the prime mover and shaker in Israel, instead of being in a courthouse facing criminal prosecution, shows how the pandemic is a gift for unscrupulous politicians.
Other countries have mass surveillance programmes using data collected from mobile phones - China being the obvious example. Tencent, the company behind the popular messaging app, WeChat - China’s equivalent of WhatsApp, only far more useful - has launched a tracking feature: the “close contact detector” app, which is supposed to be used only if the user has been in close contact with a virus carrier. South Korea has similar technology, unsurprisingly, that has been strongly criticised for an invasion of privacy - like the ‘outing’ of people engaged in extramarital affairs, thanks to their location data being made public.
France has seen some alarming developments. For years Emmanuel Macron has wanted to get rid of the 35-hour week and worker protection from unfair dismissal - now he has his chance at last. His television address on March 16 stated, “We are at war” six times - the aim being to present a patriotic united front against Covid-19 and exhort the citizenry to display civic-mindedness in confinement. Less than a week later, this appeal for national unity was translated into policy, when the French parliament passed a bill creating emergency measures, including sweeping powers for the bosses to alter working conditions unilaterally and a general restriction on civil liberties. The French Communist Party and La France Insoumise voted against it, and most Socialist Party members abstained - but this was not enough to prevent an overwhelming majority.
The sections of the bill that grant unilateral powers to the government go beyond even the extensive provision for emergency powers already in the French constitution - the president being essentially an elected monarch with the ability to employ despotic methods. Anyone caught going out without a good reason or the required documentation will be fined €135, and subsequently up to €3,000. For a third offence of violating mandatory confinement in a 30-day period, the government could impose a six-month prison sentence, on top of a €3,700 fine. Additionally, the bill extends the period for which someone can be detained without charge and placed under house arrest or on electronic surveillance - measures that do not require the permission of a magistrate. In parts of France, homeless people have been fined for not staying ‘at home’. Yes, as said at the beginning of the article, emergency measures of various kinds are necessary. But the likes of Macron are cynically manipulating the pandemic crisis to attack workers’ rights and further deregulate labour.
Ominously, Donald Trump is increasingly talking about himself as a “wartime president” - the last refuge of a scoundrel. The emergency powers that the department of justice “quietly asked” congress for gives us a good idea of what a “wartime” presidency would be like. Most of them involve powers to further restrict immigration - something dear to the heart of Trump’s longest-serving advisor, Stephen Miller - the anti-immigration zealot and white nationalist, who appears to subscribe to the ‘great replacement’ belief that there is a sinister plot to ‘disappear’ white people through miscegenation or genocide.4 Measures include the request to grant chief judges the power to detain people indefinitely without trial, which amounts to the suspension of habeas corpus.
Indeed, it is perfectly legitimate to fear that the emergency legislation could become another Patriot Act - which was rushed through congress following 9/11. The proposed repressive measures have no real relation to this specific crisis and the language deployed is deliberately vague - providing the basis to justify endless extensions and yet further curtailment of democratic rights. Temporary measures easily morph into permanent ones.
Closer to home, with opposition blessing, Boris Johnson pushed through the 329-page Coronavirus Bill even though it gives the police and immigration officials enormously repressive powers to arrest people suspected of carrying the coronavirus, shut down events and order people to go home - the powers remaining in place until September 2022, subject to parliamentary renewal every six months. Whether out of a desire to implement the letter or the spirit of the law, Derbyshire police used drones to deter people from breaking the lockdown rules - showing video footage ‘shaming’ people walking their dogs in the Peak District, whilst officers also dyed Buxton’s blue lagoon black to discourage people from visiting the beauty spot.
Even Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, conceded that there had been “one or two instances” of the police being “heavy-handed” - adding that, generally speaking, the police are “taking a very sensible approach” to the lockdown. Lord Sumption, high Tory and a retired supreme court judge, was not so generous - he castigating Derbyshire police for their “frankly disgraceful” behaviour in “wrecking” beauty spots and thundered about an infectious “collective hysteria” sliding into a “police state” that infringes upon people’s “undoubted right to travel to take exercise in the country”.
Communists are more than aware that the constant military terminology risks becoming a mobilising force for authoritarianism - whereby questioning the government could be regarded as unpatriotic or even traitorous.