Coronavirus in service of authoritarianism

Coronavirus in service of authoritarianism
Comment: Authoritarian governments from China to the US are weaponizing the coronavirus to seize greater power, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
25 Mar, 2020
Palestinian security forces build checkpoints following the coronavirus lockdown [Getty]
As the world grapples with  the global coronavirus pandemic, some leaders have chosen to speak in terms of warfare. But in this fight, the enemy cannot be seen, reasoned with or negotiated with. It cannot be struck with hi-tech weaponry and it has no structures to be targeted.

Coronavirus has no allegiances or biases regarding victims; everyone is a potential casualty.

It has already caused devastation in Italy, Iran and Spain and much of continental Europe, the MENA and North America, in addition to upheaving socio-cultural structures and norms across East Asia.

The four corners of the earth - some more helpless than others - await the opening of their own 'front'.  

You might think that, at this point, humanity would come together in recognition that this common enemy ravaging our world doesn't care about your political affiliation, creed or national identity. 

Alas, the opposite has occurred. The novel coronavirus couldn't have selected a worse time in history to make its grim appearance on the world stage. 

The two most powerful nations on earth, namely the US and China, who ought to be working together to pool their knowledge and resources to fight this pandemic, are instead continuing their pre-existing mutual antagonisms to engage in a rapidly escalating and dangerous game of tit-for-tat over who is "to blame" for the virus. 

There's little doubt that China's authoritarian denialism allowed the outbreak to become a pandemic. This has been well documented, but isn't what lies behind Trump breaking with the global consensus, and calling it the "Chinese virus".

Trump is doing what he does best - using racism and xenophobia to cement his racist and xenophobic base in an election year

China has been pushing the preposterous line that coronavirus is a US-created "bioweapon", a claim traced right back to Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, Republican Senator Tom Cotton claimed - citing pseudoscientific justifications - that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon.

In January and February, China should've been owning up to its mistakes, and the US and the world should've been learning from them. We all should've been pooling our resources. Instead, China and the US are moving in opposite directions in terms of fighting the virus, but aiding each other in weaponizing coronavirus for their own agendas. 

By giving coronavirus a Chinese nationality, Trump is doing what he does best - using racism and xenophobia to cement his racist and xenophobic base in an election year.  Meanwhile, Xi Jinping can blame America for the virus to deflect from the fatal actions taken by Beijing that created the perfect conditions for a global pandemic.

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And as China experiences a potential "second wave" of the virus, Beijing will have no qualms about blaming foreigners and minorities.  

Indeed, Trump's racist approach to communication about the virus has also allowed Beijing to cynically attribute accusations of "anti-Chinese racism" against reporters who exposed and cover real instance of its racism, including its unprecedented racist persecution of Muslim Uighurs.

Xi Jinping has seized the opportunity of coronavirus to expand aggressive surveillance and tracking systems that were previously only used for what were deemed to be "subversive hotspots" such as Tibet and Xinjiang (areas where China viciously persecutes on the basis of ethnicity and faith) to potentially the entire population.  

Russia, which many observed to be so far "quiet", has actually been anything but. True to form, the External Action Service, the EU's counter-disinformation body, has exposed no fewer than 80 points of disinformation relating to coronavirus that can be linked back to the Kremlin. 

In Israel, it looks like coronavirus could be the final nail in the coffin of the mythology of that country being 'the only democracy in the Middle East'

As with other Russian disinformation campaigns, the purpose has been to exploit real problems by sowing "panic and fear" in the West, while "undermining public trust in national healthcare systems - thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak."

One of the most tragic fronts in this war against coronavirus has been in Iran. The official death toll stands at 1812, but the reality is thought to be much, much worse. Mass graves, visible from space, have been observed, with experts warning the disease could kill millions in the country.    

US sanctions hinder Iran's ability to act, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei decided to not only turn down US help, but also repeated the conspiracy theory that the virus was manufactured by the US, and claimed that they might be using the medical aid to further spread the virus in Iran.

These decisions and this conspiracy-mongering on Khamenei's part will have literally fatal consequences. It was his regime that allowed the virus to spread like wildfire among pilgrims in Qom. As opposed to owning up to the mistakes and acting on behalf of the best interests of the Iranian people, Khamenei is locked into a deadly game of populist denialism. 

Something similar is taking place in Bolsonaro's authoritarian Brazil. The far right president claims that the virus is a "media trick", or nothing but a mild flu. This denialism only feeds the virus - the more lax leaders are about it, the easier it can spread.

Read more: Arab leaders were already incompetent, then came coronavirus

But there is a balance between taking the power to do what is right to fight coronavirus, and seizing power as a pretext to fight it. 

In Israel, it looks like coronavirus could be the final nail in the coffin of the mythology of that country being "the only democracy in the Middle East". I write this with no sense of glee, but under the pretext of fighting coronavirus, Netanyahu has carried out what the Israeli opposition has described as a "palace coup", turning himself into an "unelected strongman".

Netanyahu has been subverting and undermining democracy for years, and now it seems the threat of coronavirus has provided the pretext for him to overthrow it. He has, citing the threat posed by the virus, shut down the Knesset and, even more conveniently, given his impending corruption charges, the judicial system.

And as yet another indication of Israel's descent into racist authoritarianism beyond the occupation, the government didn't provide coronavirus guidance in Arabic, leaving Palestinian civil society to do so of its own volition. 

Coronavirus was going to be a tragedy regardless of the state of the world at the time of its arrival. But the fact that it has occured now, when authoritarianism, racism and self-interest reign on microeconomic and macroeconomic levels - presents the very opposite of the conditions we need to fight this global threat. 

The flimsy conditions of progress of the 20th century have unravelled swiftly in the past couple of decades, with 9/11, the "War on Terror" and then the rise of a new wave of global authoritarianism, racism and genocide. 

These are all connected to the destructive phenomena of a post-truth reality, short-term thinking, and societies that confuse consumerist lifestyle technology for authentic progress and "freedom".

Perhaps only once this pandemic is over, will we be able to see the full extent of how our leaders acted to use the moment to bolster themselves, and their self-interested agendas.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.