Capitalist governments the world over are exploiting of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to curb civil liberties and clamp down on dissent. It is vital that the workers’ organisations fight back to defend these basic democratic rights.
The crisis triggered by the pandemic has brought all the contradictions of capitalist society to the surface. Aside from the immediate threat of the virus, precarity and poverty are rampant, while marginalised groups face deepening oppression.
All of this is intensifying pent-up anger, which in some cases, even in the conditions of the pandemic, has erupted into open protest. The Black Lives Matter movement, starting in the USA last summer, involved more than 10 percent of the adult American population and spread to 20 countries despite the lockdown conditions, and was met with brutal state repression.
Yet the desire to win the fight against the virus and the dangers of large gatherings has meant that much of this anger has been pushed beneath the surface. Once large gatherings become safe, however, we will undoubtedly see new, massive movements of workers and youth on the streets in one country after another. In Israel for example, where the mass vaccination programme is closest to completion, mass anti-Netanyahu protests that began last summer have grown in size, with as many as 50,000 demonstrating on the streets in recent weeks.
In this febrile situation, emergency legislation introduced to enforce lockdown rules and control the spread of COVID-19 is being used to restrict democratic rights. This is despite many governments failing to take other necessary measures to contain the pandemic. In fact, they are preparing for the social explosions they anticipate in the future.
A study by the Human Rights Watch variously accused 83 governments of having “physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters… arbitrarily banned or broken up protests… enacted vague laws and measures that criminalize spreading alleged misinformation or other coverage of COVID-19… [and used] counterterrorism and other measures pre-dating the pandemic, to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and prosecute critics.”
In short, the virus provides a convenient excuse to silence, disperse and disempower the masses in struggle.
All over the world, thousands of people have been arrested and sanctioned with jail terms, fines and sackings for publicly criticising the official handling of the pandemic, as various states rush to save face.
This trend began literally on day one with Li Wenliang, the Wuhan medic and whistleblower who was slandered and persecuted by the Chinese state, before hypocritically being transformed into a national hero in China after tragically dying of the disease.
This trend has continued, with various governments attacking healthcare professionals for speaking out about official failures, while at the same time failing to provide them with adequate resources to do their jobs safely.
Criminal charges were pressed against the chair of the Bulgarian Pharmacists Union after she warned of an impending shortage of medical supplies on Bulgarian National Radio. An Egyptian medic, Ibrahim Bediwy, who spoke out about the failures of the Sisi regime in supporting healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, commented last year that, “Any doctor in the current situation is not safe. And neither is his family.”
Days later, Bediwy’s parents’ home was raided by security agents at the behest of Sisi’s military regime, and in May 2020 he was detained on terrorism charges.
Hundreds of journalists have been imprisoned for speaking out about the official handling of the pandemic. This includes Zhang Zhan, who in December was sentenced to four years in prison by a Shanghai court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by reporting from Wuhan on the coronavirus outbreak.
In Zimbabwe, Hopewell Chin’ono was reportedly beaten and arrested for reporting on the government’s sale of overpriced COVID-19 medication.
Ordinary people have been sanctioned simply for making critical posts on social media. For instance, in Turkey, hundreds of have been detained and questioned under anti-terrorism laws for making “provocative” social media posts about COVID-19.
This included a lorry driver, Malik Yılmaz, who shared a TikTok post with his 30 followers, expressing his frustration at his loss of work and lack of state support under Turkey’s lockdown.
“This virus won’t kill me, what will kill me is your system,” he said. As a result of this post, he lost his job and was threatened with two years’ imprisonment.
Shutting down protests
Lockdown rules have also been exploited to cut across protest movements. In 2019, we saw a wave of revolutionary mass movements that swept the world from Hong Kong to Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria. In many of these countries, the coronavirus pandemic was just the excuse the ruling class were looking for to brutally repress the movements.
In Hong Kong, authorities have used COVID-19 related restrictions to break up gatherings of anti-CCP demonstrators and fine participants.
The Algerian Revolution was also temporarily halted with a blanket ban on all street protests, violently enforced by the state, which gladly took the opportunity to re-establish control. This has resulted in a major health crisis in Algeria’s overflowing jails. As a report by Civicus Monitor notes, the use of detention as a main tactic “shows the hypocrisy of governments using COVID-19 as a pretence to crack down on protests, [as] the virus is more likely to spread in confined spaces like prisons.”
Meanwhile, the governor of Istanbul banned all public gatherings on 6 January 2021, using COVID-19 as an excuse. This followed major student protests at Boğaziçi University, which were ignited by the imposition of a government lackey as the rector.
The Russian state has also used social distancing rules to criminalise protests following the arrest of oppositionist Alexey Navalny. Putin has seen his popularity slide ever since the 2018 pension reform protests. In 2019 the regime was already beginning a massive wave of repression and arrests. The Navalny protests were at least in part an expression of anger against mass political repression. Putin has responded by doubling down on repression, using the pandemic as his excuse.
Emergency orders enacted in March by the Thai regime have been used to open criminal proceedings against dozens of political activists, with convictions carrying jail terms of up to two years. This is after the government crushed anti-monarchy protests late last year.
Finally, Chile has seen one of the longest continuous states of emergency in the world, which the military have used to help bury the legacy of the 2019 October Insurrection. Between 19 March 2020 when lockdowns began and 2 August, an incredible 163,957 people have been detained for alleged “crimes against public health” in a campaign of state terror intended to pacify the streets.
In an interview with the Guardian, the executive director of Amnesty International in Chile described a case where a detainee was threatened by police, who said “we want to take you to a nearby hospital so you get the virus”.
“They are criminalising protests and people organising in any way – including soup kitchens,” she added. “The pandemic has shown to what extent the inequalities in Chile translate into human rights violations.”
In an especially notorious case, a woman seeking help from police after being raped was then arrested for breaking curfew. Another woman suffered a miscarriage after being arrested walking outside her own home.
While reactionary regimes hope to put a lid on seething cauldrons of discontent by cynically manipulating public health regulations, they will only ratchet up the pressure, preparing an even greater explosion down the line.
Persecuting political enemies
The pandemic has also been used by some governments to further persecute political enemies and oppressed groups, either to entrench their positions or whip up their chauvinistic support bases and divert attention from their own errors.
Authorities in Azerbaijan sentenced a number of activists and pro-opposition journalists to detention on spurious charges of breaking lockdown. In Uganda, 20 LGBT people in April 2020 were arrested from a shelter after being falsely accused of disobeying social distancing rules.
Emergency decrees also provide a means for degenerate regimes to cling onto power. During Cameroonian regional elections in December, public meetings by opposition parties were banned due to COVID-19, with warnings that protests against this would be treated as “insurrection”.
This was clearly a manoeuvre, because the central and regional authorities still allowed bars, restaurants, nightclubs, schools, training centers, churches, and mosques to remain open.
Again in Uganda, security forces arrested a presidential candidate in the January elections for allegedly breaching COVID-19 regulations by mobilising large crowds for his campaign rallies. Pro-government rallies were, of course, allowed to go ahead.
Security Minister Elly Tumwine warned against further protests, telling the public that police have the right “to shoot you and kill you.” True to his word, dozens were shot dead in subsequent confrontations.
This political repression under the pretext of controlling COVID-19 is a sign of weakness rather than of strength. It will deepen the resentment of the masses against these decrepit regimes, and prepare the road for new outbreaks of class struggle, especially as the pandemic eventually begins to subside.
Britain: vaccine passports, Sarah Everard and Kill the Bill
Despite hypocritical condemnations by western bourgeois commentators, it is not only dictatorships in the so-called ‘Third World’ that have used COVID-19 as a figleaf for stripping democratic freedoms.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently squabbling with members of his own party over proposals to introduce “vaccine passports” to grant people access to certain venues and events based on whether they’ve had the vaccine or not.
The libertarian, anti-lockdown wing of the Tory party is raising a hue and cry, calling the policy a “discriminatory” attack on personal freedoms. But this has nothing to do with ‘personal freedoms’. Their real reason for objecting is that they are determined to hasten a return to economic normality as soon as possible, irrespective of the health impact.
Yet these libertarians have nothing to say about the genuine, serious attacks on civil liberties that the government is preparing under the pretext of ‘fighting the virus’.
Britain saw a wave of furious protests in recent weeks after police used lockdown rules to violently break up a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard, a young woman allegedly murdered by an off-duty policeman. This was despite organisers reaching out to the local authorities in advance to try and establish a way to hold the vigil safely.
The Metropolitan Police were recently, unsurprisingly, found to have “acted appropriately” by an HM Inspectorate of Constabulary review. The state forces look after their own.
Furthermore, following militant Black Lives Matter protests last summer and climate change demonstrations prior to that, the Conservative government hoped to force a new bill through parliament that would give the police unprecedented power to limit the scope of protests.
To this end, the new legislation has created a new offense of causing “serious annoyance”, for which the Tories propose a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.
Resulting protests against police violence towards women, and this reactionary new policing bill, have been viciously suppressed. Assisted by their toadies in the establishment press, the police have tried to present protestors as violent hooligans, despite ample video evidence of officers beating people on the ground, instigating violence against peaceful crowds, and attacking journalists.
In one scandalous example, the press colluded for days with a barefaced lie that officers repressing a protest in Bristol had sustained broken bones, a fabrication they later quietly retracted.
Role of the state
It is clear that left-wingers are being selectively targeted under lockdown rules, with union activists, environmentalists, and housing campaigners all being issued fines.
Aside from the aforementioned Sarah Everard and #KillTheBill protests, striking workers at a SAICA Packaging plant in Edinburgh were dispersed due to COVID-19 restrictions two weeks ago. And Karen Reissmann, a mental health nurse who organised a socially distanced protest against low pay in the NHS, was issued a £10,000 fine.
“Health workers are now frightened of opposing the 1% pay offer,” Reissmann said. “Even if I win on appeal the damage has been done because people will worry about protesting.”
Even the former chief constable of Durham, quoted in the Guardian, voiced alarm at the UK edging towards a “paramilitary-style police force”, describing the suppression of protests and the new policing bill as “short-term and politically driven.”
This is not a moral objection to the overstepping of police powers. Rather, he is concerned with the image of the police as an institution, stating:
“It reminds me of the miners’ strike when policing was mobilised for a political reason… Policing should be very careful not to be drawn into the situation of being arbiters of which protests can go ahead… The policing of protest can cause long-term damage.”
Indeed, just like with police brutality against striking miners, these recent events are exposing the rotten role of the state forces as the defenders of the capitalist status quo, not a neutral arbiter in society.
Pandemic of repression
All across the advanced capitalist countries, the story is the same. A report covering 14 countries in the EU found a raft of attacks on civil liberties, including political pressure on the media, excessive restrictions on freedom of association, and so-called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) by capitalists and politicians to “harass activists and silence criticism.”
Limits on protest are being used by reactionary regimes to undo social progress. The report states that “countries with authoritarian tendencies like Poland… took advantage of [restrictions on assembly] to push the adoption of controversial laws”, specifically the country’s near-total ban on abortion.
The report further notes “arbitrary restrictions and disruptions of protests”, citing the example of Slovenia, in which anti-government protestors have been fined despite respecting social distancing rules.
As the third wave of infections in Europe worsens, so do attacks on civil liberties, with right-wing governments using the opportunity to massively expand their power.
In Hungary, the far-right government of Viktor Orban has effectively ruled by decree following a state of emergency starting on 3 November, having previously been called off on 18 June.
These decrees have included a general ban of demonstrations, a series of attacks on civil and trade union rights, and a law under which spreading fake news is punishable by up to five years in prison: a measure that has been used to silence political opponents.
The Spanish government also used a nationwide state of emergency (beginning in October) to impose a ban on demonstrations. This rule has been utilised very selectively, with the local government in Madrid banning Women’s Day protests on 8 March, but permitting a far-right demonstration of COVID-19 denialists on 23 January.
In France, the very heart of the EU, Amnesty International condemned a “draconian crackdown on demonstrations” against racist police violence, Islamophobia, and the Global Security Bill, which aims to increase state surveillance and criminalise filming the police. Amnesty’s reported:
“Thousands have been arbitrarily fined, arrested, detained and prosecuted for peaceful activities which should not be considered offences. Peaceful protests have been banned under draconian COVID-19 powers and hundreds of protesters fined.”
In a Catch-22, a ban on face coverings enforced in April 2019 following the gilets jaunes protests, punishable with fines of up to €15,000 and a prison sentence of up to one year, makes it impossible to legally wear facemasks and properly enforce socially distancing at demonstrations.
As one activist put it: “it is as though a person can be fined when purchasing a Ferrari because it is assumed they will go over the speed limit”.
This all exposes the sham of ‘European democratic principles’, as well as the universal and immutable rule of law. These are all fictions intended to disguise the rule of the capitalists.
But while degenerate bourgeois regimes use COVID-19 as a smokescreen to make grabs for additional state power, force through reactionary legislation, and suppress protest, the masses are not taking the situation lying down.
Despite COVID-19 undermining street demonstrations in general, significant protests have continued in all the above countries, despite the additional dangers presented by the pandemic and state brutality. In a few instances, the whip of reaction has even driven the masses forward.
In Greece, for example, thousands of young people have defied a ban on protests of more than 100 people, starting in February 2021.
This measure, ostensibly to contain the coronavirus, is clearly intended to curtail a wave of struggle against attacks on education; in solidarity with left-wing hunger striker Dimitris Koufontinas; and against police brutality. Rather than being cowed, the youth and workers came out in even bigger numbers.
In Belgium, workers and youth ignored lockdown rules and a late-night curfew to hold a rally in January, following news that prosecutors had dropped all charges against police officers who fatally crashed their car into a young Moroccan man in Spring 2020.
Over 200 people were arrested by the police, including 15 minors, with some of them being beaten in custody. But demonstrations have persisted regardless.
Furthermore, groups of hundreds in Spain have defied lockdown rules to protest selective lockdown restrictions on working-class and poor communities, which limit gatherings to six people on pain of fines.
“It is illogical that you can go and do things in wealthier areas, but you cannot do the same in [the neighborhood of] Vallecas,” Begona Ramos, a protester from a locked-down neighbourhood told Reuters. “There is the same risk of contagion. They are discriminating.”
Protestors have used motorcades to bypass restrictions, raising the slogan: “No to a class-based lockdown.”
This began after he used the COVID-19 crisis to shut down the country’s parliament and judiciary in August 2020, allowing him to dodge his own corruption trial, while also authorising the state to track citizens’ movements via cell phone data with no oversight.
These scandalous measures were followed by new lockdown rules specifically limiting people from visiting protests more than a kilometer from their homes.
Everywhere, we see the masses chafing at attempts to hold them back. They can plainly see that the ruling class is using COVID-19 as a political weapon. Even where open protests have been cut across, resentment and anger is building beneath the surface at these scandalous manoeuvres during a public health disaster.
No attacks on civil liberties!
To be clear, we – like most workers – accept the need for exceptional measures, including sanctions in some cases, to maintain lockdowns and prevent the spread of the virus.
The majority of working people understand these are drastic times and have already accepted great sacrifices to their daily freedoms in the name of fighting the pandemic.
However, capitalist governments are transparently using COVID-19 as a pretext to empower the repressive state apparatus and silence legitimate protest, even when it respects social distancing rules. Whilst protesters are arrested, protest organisers are fined, and political opponents gagged, the real COVID criminals are getting off scot-free.
Where are the fines for companies that refuse to introduce social distancing in the workplace? Where are the prison sentences for bosses who fail to provide their workers with PPE? Or who demand their employees turn up to work sick? Or – for that matter – for the politicians who have ground healthcare systems into the dust and created the room for this healthcare catastrophe?
We don’t have to wonder as to why this is. The governments that are now carrying out an offensive against civil liberties are in the pockets of the rich. Defense of the bosses’ profits is their first law.
The authoritarian manoeuvring we see today is an anticipation of even-stormier periods to come. The full impact of the ruling class’ massive state spending to preserve the world economy will inevitably trigger a far deeper economic and social upheaval.
Capitalist states are thus arming themselves with greater coercive powers and undermining the right to organise in advance. Without a working-class fightback, any curtailment of democratic rights introduced with the excuse of the pandemic will be made permanent and used to stifle the ability of workers and youth, and their organisations to organise and fight.
Therefore, it is critical that workers and their mass organisations fight to preserve their elementary democratic freedoms of speech, assembly and association. Both for today’s struggles, and future battles.