History shows that in every health crisis there is a political crisis. This was the case with the black plague, which in the 14th century reformulated feudalism, and also with the Spanish flu, which after appearing in 1917 contributed to shape the global scenario during and after the First World War.
Today, in 2020, we see history repeating itself: together with the advance of the coronavirus, wars of narratives between opposing politicians, restrictions of rights and decisions made in a monocratic manner arise.
The big question is: in the face of a public health emergency, are arbitrary decisions necessarily authoritarian gestures that threaten democracy? The answer is: it depends.
“The government will put in place measures that can restrict rights already guaranteed. But how do you know if this measure is legitimate? Looking at your justification ”, says Deisy Ventura, coordinator of the PhD in Global Health at the University of São Paulo (USP).
The specialist, who made a pioneering study on the relationship of international law in the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2013, highlights the need to assess the proportionality of measures from the perspective of scientific evidence and, fundamentally, from the perspective of public health .
In this direction, it is possible to understand the need, for example, to postpone elections to avoid agglomerations, as Bolivia did last week. After months of preparation for an election that was accused of being defrauded and culminated in the resignation of Evo Morales, the country would go to the polls on May 3. Now, the Supreme Electoral Court will negotiate a new date with the parties.
On the opposite side, however, there is another movement of populist politicians, who take advantage of institutional loopholes, in a moment of crisis, to promote or expand their political powers. “Some more openly, others less, but it is simply opportunism,” says Ventura.
This logic can be attributed to President Jair Bolsonaro’s national chain address on Tuesday, 24, in which he questioned social isolation measures imposed by governors in some of the regions most affected by the disease. The measures were imposed mainly by João Doria (PSDB), in São Paulo, and Wilson Witzel (PSC), in Rio de Janeiro – states with the two main urban agglomerations in the country.
Since last year, the president has been engaged in public clashes with both of them, who were now his supporters, considering them adversaries for the presidential elections of 2022. But until now, quarantine has proved to be one of the most efficient measures to avoid an overload of health systems.
“The president’s speech confuses society, hinders work in states and municipalities, underestimates the effects of the pandemic. It shows that we are without direction, ”said the governor of Espírito Santo, Renato Casagrande (PSB).
The risk of governments taking advantage of the epidemic, which has already killed almost 20,000 people worldwide, to promote political closure has led the United Nations’ human rights area to launch a manifesto calling on countries to “avoid excessive security measures” .
In a document released last week, experts write that “any emergency response to coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory ”. “The restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health objectives and must not be used simply to contain dissent, ”they say.
In Hungary, ultranationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to pass a bill in Parliament that would allow him to extend the current state of emergency in the country indefinitely, with no end date, as well as suspend laws and basically govern by decrees without passing any decision by parliamentarians. The proposal was declined, but he said he would try again.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due to begin trial this week on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, closed courts and threatened to suspend Parliament’s activities for a week, despite taking immediate steps to contain the health crisis.
The prime minister’s justification for the current decisions is the advance of the coronavirus, but the measure in practice postponed his trial for two months. In an article from last week, the New York Times writes that “While [Netanyahu] moves to protect the nation from the pandemic, the prime minister is also putting democracy at risk ”.
One of the main concerns of experts and democratic authorities is that speeches that potentially affect human rights, such as anti-immigration, closing borders and tightening security measures, gain strength with the spread of the coronavirus.
As soon as Europe announced the closure of borders to contain the spread of the virus, Nigel Farage, a spokesman for the Brexit campaign, declared that this was “the end of the European project”. According to him, “now we are all nationalists”, in reference to a discourse of sovereignty and nationalist theses.
In the United States, the The Justice Department has asked Congress for authorization so that its top judges can arrest people indefinitely and without trial, during quarantine.
In the face of so many worrying examples, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went in the opposite direction. In a rare televised speech, she stressed the importance of measures being communicated in a clear and transparent manner so that there was no doubt about her motivation:
“For some like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement was a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified when they are an absolute necessity. In a democracy, they should never be decided lightly and should only be temporary – but at the moment they are indispensable for saving lives ”.