Special Briefing: The Next Coronavirus Victim? Civil Liberties
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because lots can happen when you’re not paying attention.
By Dan Peleschuk
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Lockdowns and self-isolation might help contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus — but those measures could also play into the hands of governments that weren’t so keen on civil liberties in the first place. Whether in Chile, India or Russia, authorities and protesters alike are navigating uncharted territory to determine just how much this new, COVID-19-induced reality could alter the dynamics of power.
Why does it matter? Even in ordinary times, finding the balance between maintaining order and guaranteeing personal freedoms isn’t exactly easy. So how governments handle this unfolding crisis could speak volumes about their plans for the future.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Momentum matters. Chile’s protesters were likely rattled by President Sebastián Piñera’s announcement yesterday that the military would oversee a 90-day “state of catastrophe” to deal with a local outbreak that’s infected nearly 250 people. For months, they’d staged demonstrations over economic and social inequality that left 31 dead and thousands injured, allegedly by abusive police. And while they compelled the authorities to hold a public referendum on a new constitution in late April, those plans may well be scuttled. Meanwhile, the 22-year-old student who became a rallying point after being blinded by rubber bullets late last year has vowed to press on until Piñera quits. The only question is, how?
Off the streets. India’s protesters, angered by a controversial citizenship law they believe discriminates against Muslims, face a similar challenge. But they appear more defiant: In Delhi, demonstrators affiliated with the female-driven Shaheen Bagh sit-in movement have refused to call off their protests despite an order banning gatherings of more than 50 people. Instead, they’ve demanded that officials tend to those displaced by recent deadly riots in the city. And yesterday, thousands of protesters reportedly turned out in the eastern city of Chennai despite local authorities refusing to sanction such demonstrations. It’s anyone’s guess what might happen after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement Thursday of a “citizens curfew,” which begins Sunday.
Police practice. For leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s looking to extend his two-decade rule, proving he can maintain order is a top priority for his propaganda effort. That’s why a lockdown is great training for his security apparatus, which has recently beefed up its technical capabilities. In Moscow alone, some 200 people have reportedly been caught flouting quarantine rules by facial recognition systems. A member of the Kremlin’s human rights council called it “a happy time” for Russian law enforcement — but one that’s also dangerous for authorities if they flub the moment. Next month, Russia plans to hold a nationwide vote to green-light constitutional tweaks that would effectively allow Putin to hang on through 2036.
Shifting strategies. Many groups are quickly realizing that it doesn’t take an autocrat to derail protest movements. Climate activists are among them: The Sunrise Movement has told its followers, who advocate for the Green New Deal, to stay off the streets, while prominent teenage climate crusader Greta Thunberg similarly urged her disciples to take their fight online. And while digital democracy is more effective than ever, activists themselves concede it’s just not the same without filling the streets with screaming humans. Says one climate protester: “We’re going to be fighting with one hand tied behind our back.”
Will the West do it better? As Western democracies scramble to enforce their quarantine rules, China’s bragged about how its draconian policies have been a magic bullet against coronavirus. Yesterday, the original epicenter of Wuhan recorded zero new infections for the first time ever. But the West shouldn’t fret. “Wartime democracies are fearsome things,” one political scientist told Axios — arguing that those governments tend to enjoy broader popular mandates, which theoretically make them more powerful.
WHAT TO READ
Sisi and Erdogan Are Accomplices of the Coronavirus, by Steven A. Cook in Foreign Policy
“These are strongmen who command significant amounts of resources, but they are hardly the strong leaders that people need now.”
Trump’s Coronavirus Response Isn’t the Work of a Dictator, by Rich Lowry in National Review
“Trump declared an emergency last week and has now issued national guidelines against gatherings of more than ten people, but his initial instinct was to urge people to stay calm and carry on.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Chile Protesters Move Off Streets Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
“It also means that starting Thursday, the army will be back on the streets — a sensitive decision, given their checkered human rights record.”
Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:
Will Efforts to Combat Spread of Coronavirus Threaten Civil Liberties?
“The real power of government here to handle an epidemic like this that’s not localized in one place, but spreading out throughout the country, is in the state governments. That’s the way our constitution was designed.”
Watch on Fox News on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Fight for your right … to party? Despite reports that COVID-19 targets younger people just as much as the elderly, they’re defying official mandates for social distancing by holding “lockdown parties” in places as diverse as Berlin clubs and Argentine beaches. Police are left to bust up speakeasies like it’s 1929.
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk