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Federal Politics

While Fighting the Virus, We Must Fight for Our Rights

These governments around the world are trying to use the pandemic to smother freedoms.

Michael Harris 25 Aug

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Twenty-two million human beings have had COVID-19 as I type this, and 788,000 have already perished. Those numbers will be higher by the time you read these words. So wear a mask, wash your hands, and mind your social distance from others. Listen to the scientists and give the COVID deniers what they deserve — your scorn.

One other thing. Keep a sharp eye on your freedoms. Democracy may soon be added to that gruesome list of the pandemic’s victims.

Several countries have already had key institutions undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic, or its political manipulation. As a result, civil and constitutional rights, like the freedoms of assembly and expression, have been diluted if not cancelled outright — all in the name of fighting the deadly virus. Those rights may or may not be restored.

Let’s run through a list of governments eroding democracy under cover of pandemic — and don’t be surprised to find Canada in there, edging towards membership.

HUNGARY. There, it is beginning to look like a state of permanent emergency. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has completely neutered Parliament, after his majority party used the pandemic to grant him the power to suspend existing laws, and all elections and referendums. Under the Anti-Coronavirus Act, journalists may now get up to five years in jail for disseminating false information during a pandemic — i.e., criticizing the government. The conclusion is inescapable. Orbán is no longer a PM, he is a dictator.

ISRAEL. The only democracy in the Middle East has taken draconian measures of its own to fight the pandemic, which has struck with a vengeance since the dubious May 17 decision to reopen the country’s schools.

The measures include putting Israeli citizens under the kind of sophisticated surveillance that was designed to trace the movements of terrorists. The Israeli domestic security service, Shin Bet, used cellphone technology to do contact tracing aimed at managing the spread of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also shut down the country’s courts, which has the handy benefit of avoiding his own trial on corruption charges. The new powers the Israeli government adopted were originally authorized in cabinet, bypassing a full vote in the Knesset.

Netanyahu also suggested “micro-chipping” everyone, including children returning to kindergarten or school. The micro-chip would sound an alarm if social distancing was not being practised. The idea was trashed by experts, who said that pedophiles with a little technical expertise could use the micro-chip to stalk their victims. The PM’s idea was set aside.

JORDAN. Prime Minister Omar al Razzaz imposed a curfew enforced by drones, as did Greece, India and some Middle Eastern countries. His critics have accused him of using emergency laws designed to fight the pandemic to limit their civil and political rights. That impression only deepened after security forces arrested the head of the opposition-run teachers union for criticizing the government.

CHILE. President Sebastián Piñera declared a “state of catastrophe” over the pandemic and imposed a ban on public gatherings of more than 500 people. It was ostensibly part of government’s plan to battle the deadly virus. But protesters claim that security forces have instead used their powers to silence Piñera’s critics, killing 26 people in the process. Santiago’s public squares are now full of military forces, not protesters.

Piñera also used the pandemic to put off a long-awaited referendum on replacing Chile’s constitution, a document written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. (Chile returned to democracy in 1990.) The vote was originally scheduled for last April, but has been delayed until October.

CAMBODIA. Prime Minister Hun Sen has called people he accuses of spreading “false news” about COVID-19 “terrorists.” In that country, citizens can be arrested, detained and questioned for criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. The press has been muted — if not silenced — and several members of the political opposition have been arrested and jailed.

BRAZIL. More than 108,000 people have died from coronavirus in Brazil. Yet the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has claimed that concern over COVID-19 is “hysteria.” No need for masks or social distancing. That despite the fact that the president himself has tested positive for the virus. (After three positive tests in a row, Brazil’s president now claims a new test came back negative.) That may put Bolsonaro a nose ahead in his Pinocchio race with U.S. President Donald Trump, who believes you can fight COVID-19 with lies.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a cheerleader for the discredited anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine despite it being panned by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for not being effective in treating COVID-19.

Instead of protecting his citizens in the time of pandemic, Bolsonaro has used the chaos surrounding the pandemic to consolidate his own power, and make war on Brazil’s democratic institutions.

While speaking on horseback at a rally of his supporters, he suggested sending in the military to depose all 11 members of the country’s supreme court and replace them with friendly appointees. The supreme court had authorized an investigation of the president, members of his family and his “network” of advisors for various potential crimes.

Bolsonaro’s former justice minister, Sérgio Moro, accused the president of meddling in the federal police, Brazil’s version of the FBI. The federal police were investigating members of Bolsonaro’s family. Moro was eventually driven out of office by Bolsonaro. Before joining the government, Moro was the judge in charge of Brazil’s huge anti-corruption investigation.

THE PHILIPPINES. President Rodrigo Duterte is the thug’s thug who authorized the shooting of “suspected drug dealers” and addicts by police and mysterious gunmen, a policy that resulted in more than 7,000 extra-judicial murders in the Philippines.

After bragging about shooting people himself, the president infamously said, “If you know any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.”

He is also the politician who shut down the country’s biggest news organization, ABS-CBN, and authorized the killing of “corrupt” journalists.

Maria Ressa of the news organization Rappler was recently spuriously convicted in a Manila court of “cyber libel” and sentenced to six months to six years in jail. The law that sent her to prison wasn’t even on the books in 2014 when her article was republished.

Unlike many other populist leaders, Duterte takes the pandemic very seriously. The president ordered a massive lockdown of millions of citizens to control the spread of the virus.

After slum dwellers in Manila left their homes to protest two weeks without food packets, Duterte issued this grim edict to police and military against people violating the lockdown: “If there is trouble and there’s an occasion that they fight back and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead. Is that understood? Dead. I will bury you.”

Just last week, Duterte was forced to reimpose lockdown conditions on 27 million people living on the main Philippine island of Luzon, after his attempt to reopen the economy led to a spike in COVID-19 cases that threatened to overwhelm the health-care system in the Philippines.

It would be comforting to think that the unravelling of democracy in the time of COVID-19 is a southeast Asian problem, an Eastern European problem or a South American problem. Comforting, but misleading. It is every democracy’s dilemma during the pandemic.

CANADA. Our Parliament, now prorogued, is a pale shadow of its former self, holding occasional sessions with a skeleton crew of MPs. The finance committee investigation into the WE scandal has been suspended, although damaging information continues to be revealed in the 5,000 pages of redacted documents released by government on the same day Parliament was shut down.

For now, Trudeau is a TV prime minister. While kids are already set to head back to school in some provinces, government will use regulations to create income support until Parliament resumes on Sept. 23. Until then, Canadian democracy will be in limbo. Seven government bills on the order paper have now died, including amendment of the physician-assisted dying law.

Although Justin Trudeau has justifiably received solid marks for fighting COVID-19, it should be remembered what he initially asked for to get the job done; the power to spend money and change tax law without Parliament’s approval until December 2021. He was denied that overreach by an effective opposition that pushed back hard on his proposal.

Like other people around the world, Canadians are being electronically tracked (at least in Ontario), to control the spread of the virus. The app, COVID Alert, uses Bluetooth to exchange random codes with nearby phones that have the app installed. If someone you’ve been in close contact with over the past 14 days tests positive, you will be notified through the app that you have been exposed.

The government insists that COVID Alert does not collect personally identifiable information about you. And it ought to be stressed that using the app is voluntary in Canada, unlike the tracking program in Israel.

The trouble with benign tracking is that it gets people used to being tracked. It also depends on the honesty of authorities to limit the use of this tool to what it was designed to do. CSIS wasn’t honest in its illegal storage of metadata, including phone numbers and email addresses for 10 years; nor was the FBI when it routinely used FISA warrants to prosecute domestic crimes.

In Nova Scotia, people coming into the province are required to quarantine for 14 days. They are asked for the phone number of the house or apartment in which they are self-isolating. If they fail to answer the telephone three times, the police show up.

THE UNITED KINGDOM. The model for Canada’s parliamentary system passed a 329-page emergency bill that grants draconian powers to the government.

Ministers have the power to detain and isolate suspected COVID-19 patients, ban public gatherings and shut down ports, airports and businesses. It now requires just a single medical opinion to detain and treat people believed to be suffering from a mental disorder. (It used to require two opinions.) There is even a provision to require crematoriums to increase their hours of operation.

The government wanted the new powers to last for two years. The opposition pushed back, and now the measures will be revisited by the House of Commons every six months.

This unprecedented legislation went through the British Parliament in just three days. The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, had this to revisit last March when the measures became law:

“Many of the powers in this bill have serious implications for civil liberties and human rights. They must only be used when necessary during this emergency — and not a minute longer.”

THE UNITED STATES. In the world’s self-styled “greatest democracy” on Earth, the Trump administration has used the pandemic to reject asylum seekers on its southern border with no legal process. Immigration experts say it is the culmination of a three-year effort to remove all legal protections from people fleeing countries in Central America. COVID-19 has been the administration’s silver bullet.

But the pandemic has also infected the heart of U.S. democracy. The president has openly mused about delaying the election (as Bolivia and now New Zealand have already done), despite the fact that he has no constitutional authority to do that. Congress sets the date for elections, not the White House.

By every indication, the U.S is careening towards a constitutional crisis as this November’s presidential election draws near. As a public health measure during a pandemic, the Democrats believe that voting by mail-in ballot is both prudent and safe. More than 80 per cent of voters in Utah, for example, have routinely voted by mail-in ballot with no problems.

But just as President Trump wants to send all American children back to school this fall despite the pandemic, he wants voters to cast their ballot in person. He has even threatened to withhold funds from states like Michigan and Nevada who want to move to mail-in ballots as an anti-COVID measure. Here’s what the president had to say in a recent tweet:

“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mailboxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & and even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”

The president offered no evidence for his bizarre predictions.

Not surprisingly, Trump is holding up funding for the United States Postal Service, which says it needs the money to process the huge volume of mail-in ballots that might be cast in 2020. As many as 20 states are looking at suing the Trump administration over postal cuts.

If the postal service can’t process the expected volume of mail-in ballots by election day, millions of votes might not count. Should counting go on for days after Nov. 3, and should Trump lose, it will be easier for him to claim that the election was rigged and fraudulent. The result? A defeated president could remain in the White House while an interminable legal war in states where he lost rages.

To some this might sound farfetched. But Trump would not tell Chris Wallace of Fox News whether he would be a “gracious” loser should Joe Biden beat him on Nov. 3, as polls are currently predicting. Because the U.S. courts have not ruled that there is a fundamental right to vote absentee, early, or by mail, Americans might really be treated to a defeated president who won’t leave office.

And that would be disastrous. According to a bipartisan report just released by the Republican-controlled senate intelligence committee, the Trump campaign accepted help from Russian government officials to get elected in 2016. The campaign also secretly provided Russian officials with internal polling data. Despite being 1,000 pages long, the report was barely noticed in the middle of the trauma caused by COVID-19.

At the Democratic National Convention, former president Barack Obama issued a call to action: “170,000 Americans are dead, millions of jobs gone, our worst impulses unleashed, our proud democratic institutions threatened like never before.... Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.”

The pandemic is killing more than people, economies, education and travel. It has also come for our freedom. And the only antidote is extreme vigilance by all of us.  [Tyee]

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