At first glance, Venezuela looks like one of the worldâ€™s biggest coronavirus success stories. Amid rampant worries in the pandemicâ€™s earliest stages that COVID-19 would overwhelm the crisis-stricken state, socialist President NicolÃ¡s Maduro locked down the country and seemingly stopped the spread. As of Monday, Venezuelan authorities had reported just more than 20,000 cases and 174 deaths, among the lowest numbers in Latin America â€• a region the virus has hit harder than any other.Â
For months, though, there have been abundant signs that the situation is actually very dire. Doctors have reported that case numbers are far higher than the government asserts and that the countryâ€™s beleaguered health system is on the brink of collapse. Journalists have reported their own, higher figures, or shown up outside hospitals to observe the situation for themselves.Â
Maduro has reacted with a crackdown against anyone who may expose the stateâ€™s faults. In imprisoning doctors and journalists, he joins a roster of authoritarian leaders who have sought to cover up their own inadequacies and failing responses to the pandemic through censorship and repression.
â€œThey donâ€™t want anybody giving alternative numbers. They want to keep control of the message,â€ said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based researcher at the International Crisis Group, an NGO. â€œThere hasnâ€™t really been a comprehensive response [in Venezuela] â€• all weâ€™ve had is propaganda.â€
Globally, the worldâ€™s most authoritarian governments, in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Egypt, China and elsewhere, have treated the pandemic similarly: By using it as cover to broaden and intensify their efforts to clamp down on dissent and thwart the free spread of information â€” and not just about the pandemic.
For authoritarian governments, the coronavirus outbreak has provided an opening to target some of the last remaining freedoms in their countries, and in Maduroâ€™s case, it has sapped an opposition seeking to oust him of any remaining momentum it had. In other nations, meanwhile, the virus has presented an opportunity for aspiring authoritarians to act on their most autocratic whims.Â
That approach isnâ€™t just a threat to democratic norms and human rights â€• it has likely also further obscured the true scope of the global pandemic and made it harder for health experts to adequately respond to it.
â€œThe countries that are taking these measures are making it difficult to effectively control the epidemic,â€ said Domingos Alves, a professor of social medicine at the University of SÃ£o Paulo in Brazil. â€œAnd they may, from now on, be the effective cause of a worsening of this epidemic in other countries in the coming months.â€Â
Silencing Reporters And Doctors
During a mid-May campaign stop, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that the public health problem wasnâ€™t the coronavirus itself, but that testing was finding too many cases of it.
â€œWhen you test, you have a case,â€ Trump said. â€œWhen you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didnâ€™t do any testing we would have very few cases.â€
He was roundly mocked for the absurdity of the statement, but a lack of testing has proved a key way for governments to limit the collection of coronavirus data.Â
Venezuela, which was credited for its aggressive early response to the virus, has closed all but two official testing sites and prevented private labs from conducting their own exams.
In Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega largely denied the existence of the virus, civil society organizations have suggested that the countryâ€™s relatively low counts of COVID-19 cases and deaths are due to a lack of testing and the governmentâ€™s deliberate attempts to obscure data: â€œThere are reasons to believeâ€ the official estimates are â€œfar lower than the actual numberâ€ of infections and deaths, said Tiziano Breda, a Guatemala-based Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group.
In the pandemicâ€™s earliest stages, Chinaâ€™s efforts to control its data â€• which included the suppression of medical experts and a crackdown on reporting â€• robbed international health organizations and governments of valuable information and time they could have used to prepare for outbreaks. Whistleblower Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, died of COVID-19 months after authorities silenced his warnings. And social media discussion of the virus is censored in China, where the government has expelled foreign journalists exposing the dark reality of the crisis.
Those repressive practices have spread alongside the virus. Venezuelan authorities arrested a journalist for reporting alternative coronavirus figures in March, just days after confirming the countryâ€™s first case. The Committee to Protect Journalists has said at least 10 reporters were arrestedÂ in the country between late March and early May.
â€œIf youâ€™re a journalist … and youâ€™re in the vicinity of a hospital and you look like youâ€™re reporting, you risk getting picked up and held and your material taken, and you may get roughed up,â€ Gunson said. â€œYou may get a call in the middle of the night from the secret police and get disappeared for a few days, and then charged with offenses under whatâ€™s called the law against hate.â€
Cambodia jailed a journalist simply for quoting the prime minister, while Thailand has criminalized reporting that authorities deem to be â€œfalseâ€ news about coronavirus. Police in India have arrested and harassed members of the press who have written critical stories, and the government has reportedly pressured media outlets to publish positive stories about its coronavirus response. In Zimbabwe, journalists have gone into hiding to avoid reprisal from the government: â€œI am hiding like a rat in my own country for doing nothing more than my job,â€ one Zimbabwean reporter told The Associated Press this week.
There is sort of an open war against doctors and health care workers who try to voice an independent opinion or complain about the lack of equipment or training.
Amr Magdi, Human Rights Watch expert on the Middle East and North Africa
Medical workers have also become an increasingly prominent target of authoritarians: In June, Egyptian authorities arrested Alaa Shaaban Hamida, a pregnant 26-year-old doctor, at her office and charged her with terrorism offenses and â€œspreading false newsâ€ after a nurse used Hamidaâ€™s phone to report a coronavirus case directly to the Health Ministry instead of telling her managers. At least a dozen other health care workers and journalists have been held on draconian charges.Â
The Egyptian government has failed to provide protective equipment and shares questionable information about the scale of the crisis, and rights groups say the countryâ€™s outbreak is almost certainly worse than official figures suggest. But President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly have publicly criticized physicians for not containing the virus, and when the countryâ€™s largest doctorsâ€™ organization planned a press conference to object to the accusations, rights groups say security forces seized the organizationâ€™s headquarters to silence them.
â€œThere is sort of an open war against doctors and health care workers who try to voice an independent opinion or complain about the lack of equipment or training,â€ said Amr Magdi, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Human Rights Watch.Â
In Russia, infectious disease experts have faced intimidation after questioning whether the government is manipulating statistics and death tolls. And while Venezuelan doctors questioned the Maduro governmentâ€™s official data early in the summer, health officials now â€œare very, very careful not to give alternative numbers,â€ Gunson said.Â
â€œItâ€™s been made absolutely clear to them,â€ Gunson said, â€œthat they will be treated very severely.â€Â
Medical professionals in Nicaragua have repeatedly pushed back against Ortegaâ€™s handling of the pandemic: In a May letter, more than 700 doctors warned that â€œthe deliberate concealment and manipulation of the actual number of people affectedâ€ had prevented Nicaragua from implementing â€œappropriate epidemiological measures of containment and mitigation.â€
Ortegaâ€™s government has also faced criticism from human rights groups that have accused his government of purposefully obscuring the number of COVID-19 cases by classifying deaths as a result of pneumonia or other common respiratory illnesses, and for holding â€œexpress burialsâ€ in the middle of the night.Â Â
As of last week, at least 21 Nicaraguan doctors had been fired for disputing the governmentâ€™s official line on the virus, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The targeting of reporters and doctors is part of broader human rights crackdowns:Â Turkeyâ€™s government reportedly arrested hundreds of people over social media posts, offering only vague explanations for their offenses, while it also detained numerous journalists for reporting on the virus. Zimbabwean human rights groups said the government arrested more than 60 people after a protest this weekend. And between the end of March and early June, the Venezuelan nonprofit Center for Justice and PeaceÂ documented at least 184 â€œsystematic human rights violationsâ€ under Maduro.Â
The Rise Of New Authoritarians
In many of these countries, the attacks on dissent and the limiting of official data are continuations of long-standing practices: The Venezuelan government hasnâ€™t published epidemiological data for the last five years, Gunson said.
â€œWeâ€™re in a black hole in terms of official statistics,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s not that theyâ€™re just suppressing information about COVID-19. They are across the board suppressing information.â€
Ortegaâ€™s government in Nicaragua has for years limited access to official figures on homicides and other vital public information, and his actions during the pandemic are almost indistinguishable from the sort of repression that drew international attention in April 2018, when mass protests broke out against his government in Managua, the capital city.
â€œThe repression, the crackdowns and the threats against journalists have been basically constant since the outbreak of the April 2018 crisis,â€ Breda said. â€œThe topic now has shifted: Weâ€™re talking less about civil liberties and the right to protest, or the narrowing of the democratic state. Now itâ€™s all centered around information related to COVID-19. So the topic is a shift, but the practice has remained the same.â€
Trump has sought to bring down Maduro and, to a lesser extent, Ortega, since the beginning of his presidency, and has implemented brutal economic sanctions against both governments that he has refused to relax during the pandemic, further complicating both nationsâ€™ approach to the virus. The pandemic, however, has given a new model of authoritarians â€• including Trump himself and far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro â€• the opportunity to act on their most autocratic and conspiratorial desires, and they have adopted many of the same practices as Ortega and Maduro, two men they ostensibly oppose.Â
The U.S. and Brazil rank first and second, respectively, on the list of largest coronavirus outbreaks, but a lack of reliable testing â€• and their presidentsâ€™ lack of interest in facilitating it â€• has likely obscured the true scope of the pandemic in both nations.
Alves, of the University of SÃ£o Paulo, authored a study in April that showed Brazilâ€™s outbreak was likely at least 12 times larger than official figures showed, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the actual number of infections in the U.S. is likely anywhere from six to 24 times the confirmed total.
Trump and Bolsonaro have both dismissed rising death counts, politicized the use of masks and falsely framed efforts to control the virusâ€™ spread as motivated attempts to crater their economies and bring down their governments.Â
Bolsonaro and Trump have each faced accusations of trying to block the public from accessing coronavirus-related data on government websites. They have both used the pandemic to undermine faith in the press and democratic institutions. And the two right-wing leaders, who are friendly with each other, have targeted top public health experts for offering dissenting views, either by firing them, driving them to quitÂ or essentially sidelining them.Â
Trump has responded to his declining popularity with an authoritarian response to racial justice protests, while Bolsonaro has tried to expand his influence over Brazilâ€™s impartial institutions, including its law enforcement and judicial bodies. Before he tested positive in early July, Bolsonaro appeared at small, weekly protests where some supporters called on him to close Brazilâ€™s national Congress.Â
Other leaders have gone even farther than Trump and Bolsonaro. Hungary, for example, passed measures that allowed far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban toÂ effectively rule by decreeÂ for months, a time he used to undercut opposition parties.
In Bolivia, far-right evangelical leader Jeanine AÃ±ez, whoÂ took controlÂ afterÂ an effective coupÂ against former socialist President Evo Morales, has used the outbreak to strengthen her grip on power, which was cemented with rampant human rights abuses. Boliviaâ€™s electoral court twice delayed presidential elections early in the pandemic, allowing AÃ±ez, a supposedly temporary leader who is running despite promising not to, to remain in power even longer. In late July, the countryâ€™s top electoral courtÂ pushed the presidential vote back again, raising concerns about the future of a democracy that has been on the brink for months.
Under AÃ±ez, who is trailing in election polls, â€œstate-sponsored violence, restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary detentions have all contributed to a climate of fear and misinformation that has undermined the rule of law as well as the prospects of fair and open elections,â€ a Harvard Law School report released last week said.
Ecuadorian President LenÃn Moreno, meanwhile, decried criticism of his governmentâ€™s slow response to the pandemic as â€œfake news,â€ even as The New York Times reported that the countryâ€™s death toll was roughly 15 times higher than the governmentâ€™s official figures suggested. In July, a major Ecuadorian opposition party led by former President Rafael Correa was suspended from the 2021 elections in a move prominent regional leaders called an â€œact of political biasâ€ that â€œcalls into question the legitimacyâ€ of the upcoming contests. (A court recently reinstated the party.)
And in Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei, who human rights activists feared would cement the countryâ€™s turn away from democracy when he won election last year, has taken advantage of pandemic-era lockdowns to further weaken the countryâ€™s democratic institutions.Â
Giammattei, a doctor and former police officer, initially responded with strong measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including a curfew. But in recent weeks, it has become â€œreally obvious that the curfew is a way of controlling social unrest,â€ especially as rising poverty rates and anger over government corruption threaten to bring Guatemalans back into the streets, said Frank La Rue, a Guatemalan human rights expert and the president of the Central American Institute for the Study of Social Democracy.Â Â
The majority coalition in Guatemalan Congress, which includes Giammatteiâ€™s party, has also attempted to undermine the countryâ€™s supreme and constitutional courts during the pandemic as it continues to roll back efforts to combat institutionalized corruption in a country where major parties have long been linked to organized crime.Â
â€œGuatemala is a tragedy moving from bad to worse,â€ La Rue said of his native country, although his warning seemingly applies to countless other nations across the globe.Â
â€œThe pandemic,â€ he added, â€œhas been the perfect cover to take a more authoritarian approach to things.â€
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