COVID-19 is the Perfect Storm for Authoritarianism

Two races began: the spread of the virus, and the spread of misinformation.

COVID-19 rapidly evolved from a China issue, to an Asia problem, and now to a global disaster. As the virus gained momentum the world lagged in response efforts, thus enabling mass community transmission. While the mainstream media obsessed over the spread of the virus, though, it glossed over a dangerous side effect of global pandemic: authoritarianism.

The story begins on December 30, 2019, in Wuhan, China. Doctor Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, noticed multiple cases of acute respiratory illness that closely resembled the SARS epidemic of 2003.

He shared the information with a group chat of doctors, urging them to take precautionary measures to prevent the spread.

Within a few days he was brought in and questioned by local authorities, who accused him of spreading false rumors. He tragically passed away at the beginning of February and will be remembered as the whistleblowing hero who alerted the world what was yet to come.

The Two Races

Despite the CCP’s efforts, COVID-19 gained legitimacy in the world’s eye. Two races began: the spread of the virus, and the spread of misinformation.

The novelty of such a virus has made it difficult to reach conclusions on factors such as contagiousness, mortality rate, and immunity. Data collected in early march imply that the average carrier of the virus infects two and a half other individuals. This makes it nearly twice as contagious as the flu. In the three months since Dr. Wenliang’s initial warning COVID-19 has spread to nearly every country for a total of around one million confirmed cases.

Although China may have been the first country to spread misinformation on COVID-19, many other nations quickly followed suit. Let’s take a deeper look at some false claims spread by governments.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoying their favorite past time.

While the Chinese Communist Party has received praise from the World Health Organization for their strict containment efforts, it is a double-edged sword. On one side, strict efforts are necessary for preventing the spread of the virus. On the other, invasive surveillance and heavy restrictions on personal rights have taken hold. The Alipay Health Code, an app launched in conjunction with the CCP, tracks citizen location information and reports to police. Further, Chinese officials have gone as far as welding apartment doors shut in efforts of keeping people inside. While these efforts will certainly be effective in containing the spread of the virus, they don’t seem to acknowledge the inherent risks of such measures.

In the United States, millions of Americans would have been outraged at the prospect of martial law only a few months prior. Now, many citizens criticize President Trump for not enacting a national lockdown. With many beaches in Florida remaining open and dozens of states still open for business, debates on civil liberties have taken the forefront. Should a nationwide quarantine be enforced, at the expense of the right to move freely? Should the actions of a few irresponsible people be allowed to continue, at the expense of our nation’s health? I insist that stopping the spread of the virus should be our number one priority, but not if it gives the government tight control over our lives that can be continued long after the pandemic is over.

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St. Johns Beaches remain open, while adjacent Duval County beaches are closed; photo by Nikki Kimbleton

The 9/11 debate is thus relevant once again. Tight airport security may have been seen as an infringement on privacy rights, yet it remains necessary to maintain air travel safety. If tracking citizens’ location information becomes necessary to curb the virus, how can we be sure such privacy infringements end with the pandemic? Fortunately, despite President Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, the US Constitution has prevented him from taking such measures. Tragically, however, many Americans will ignore government recommendations to stay at home and maintain social distancing. It is impossible to determine what will happen next, and America’s fall into authoritarianism is potentially still in the cards. Only time will tell the direction our nation chooses, but as the Trump Administration launches a propaganda campaign placing full blame on China, the future is grim.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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