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We Cannot Let Government’s Use The Pandemic To Consolidate Authoritarianism

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Even to the most untrained eye, the pandemic causing a large-scale expansion of executive powers across nations is strikingly obvious. In the past 7 months, governments all across the world have increasingly clamped down on multiple civil liberties in an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (SARS-CoV-2).

Alarming to note, however, is the extent of powers some governments have been granting themselves under the guise of responding to a health crisis in an attempt to suppress opposition and consolidate their power.

Viktor Orban
Viktor Orban. Source: flickr

In Hungary, new legislation was passed that allowed Viktor Orbán (the current prime minister) to rule by decree indefinitely with nearly no oversight by parliament or a set system of accountability.

Similar actions have been taken in the Philippines and Cambodia. These can be seen as nothing more than attempts by already repressive systems to further suppress any form of opposition and calls for transparency and accountability, thereby shifting from largely democratic decision-making processes to newer, more authoritarian systems.

The restrictions on public assembly, the control over the media to prevent the spread of alleged “misinformation” that apparently causes panic amongst the public faced with an unprecedented and powerful health crisis and the near-constant surveillance over citizens infected or deemed prone to infection are incredibly similar to the system in place in George Orwell’s 1984 (albeit slightly different as the focus of that book isn’t about how a government grapples with a global pandemic).

In 1975, Political scientist Juan Linz defined authoritarianism as possessing four qualities:

  1. Limited political pluralism realised with constraints on the legislature, political parties and interest groups.
  2. Political legitimacy based upon appeals to emotion and identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat “easily recognisable societal problems, such as underdevelopment or insurgency”.
  3. Minimal political mobilisation and suppression of anti-regime activities.
  4. Poorly defined executive powers, often vague and shifting, which extends the power of the executive.

When these characteristics of an authoritarian regime, in theory, are juxtaposed to the actions of governments in the present day, it is not difficult to notice how the actions of governments in an attempt to control the pandemic can turn authoritarian.

Chief among the tools that have been employed to safeguard public health that has quickly become a tool to quell the opposition is the ban on public gatherings and assembly. In India, protests against the government’s disturbingly anti-Muslim CAA bill have been successfully suppressed as the bigger picture of public health became the primary focus of citizens and the government, causing them to enact strict bans on public gatherings and the enforcement of strict social distancing protocols.

If these restrictions manage to continue post the pandemic situation, it will be equivalent to spitting in the face of civil liberties.

The postponement of elections across the world in both liberal and illiberal systems, often for political ends under the guise of safeguarding public health interests, is also a disturbing trend seen that indicate a slight shift towards more authoritarian democratic systems because while the electoral process is not being completely done away with, it is being manipulated to serve the needs of incumbent executives.

modi shah laughing
Representative Image.

Finally, as mentioned earlier in this paper, the most alarming development in the rising tide of authoritarianism across the world is the nearly unchecked powers certain governments are granting themselves.

In German jurist Carl Schmitt’s work Die Diktatur the idea of Ausnahmezustand or state of exception is created, which essentially states that any government capable of decisive actions should include a dictatorial element within their constitutions in order to effectively expand the power of the executive.

Now, while Schmitt goes on to denounce declaring a state of emergency (as most countries have done in an effort to combat the pandemic) in order to enter dictatorial setups (what he termed a “commissarial dictatorship”) in governments, the fact that most governments are utilising constitutional machinery to expand their own powers and consolidate authoritarianism is unsettling as it almost manages to fall in line with a Nazi backed process of evolving democracies into dictatorships.

What does this rise of authoritarian tendencies mean for the World?

Between 1960–1990 most democracies that imploded or broke down were done through violent means, either through coups, revolutions or civil wars that were directly caused by the actions of pressure groups or armed resistance.

In the recent past, however, it has been noted that an increasing number of democracies are put at risk by the actions of their own democratically elected leaders who have used democratic systems and constitutional machinery to evade or destroy traditional limits to their powers.

Levitsky and Ziblatt rightly pointed out that “when democracies die from within, as they now usually do, they do so slowly, in barely visible steps” because the tactics employed by these individuals are so secretive and steeped in bureaucracy rather than revolutionary it becomes difficult to pinpoint when the democracy exactly collapsed as opposed to the indicators visible during the violent revolution.

Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin
Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In an era of authoritarian populism, this is furthered by the fact that most populists are open with their intention to change how the government functions and are voted into power to do exactly that by appealing to a vote bank’s emotion based on promises that they rarely follow up on.

The populist does not hide the fact that they are trying to manipulate discontentment among the general population in order to further their own socio-political agenda.

When these conditions for the death of democracy are compared with the existing situation as a result of governments taking steps to control the spread of the pandemic, it is clear that if these steps go unchecked and the system of checks and balances is weakened by an unprecedented expansion of executive power then it will become very easy for repressive governments to utilise the tools used to control a pandemic to effectively curtail civil liberties, become authoritarian and free from a strong and vocal opposition.

How can this trend be reversed or Combated?

In order to protect our future, individuals must be willing to learn from their past. An authoritarian government can quickly turn fascist and a fascist government’s greatest asset is unquestioned authority.

The system of checks and balances, though currently heavily restricted, must not ever take a backseat in the fight towards maintaining liberal democracies in a quickly changing world where it has become obvious that even the largest and most powerful countries that at one point maintained hegemony over global politics are unable to tackle the pandemic effectively and efficiently.

Democracies are now scrambling towards dictatorial methods to safeguard public health. The cracks in the global capitalist system are becoming more and more apparent, with nations embracing socialistic approaches towards maintaining the quality of life and public safety.

Great care must be taken by watchdogs and the opposition in every nation to ensure that incumbent governments do not misuse the ability to expand executive powers. While controlling the pandemic will involve strict social distancing and restrictions on certain civil liberties, safeguarding public health cannot be used as an excuse for police brutality and blatant misuse of a government authority.

The second a government begins to restrict free speech and the right to protest is the moment the slippery slide towards authoritarianism begins. Governments that exhibit these signs of a deteriorating democracy must be immediately held accountable.

tablighi jamaat
Representative Image.

Another issue that must be circumvented is the problem of scapegoating. At the beginning of the pandemic like situation, the coronavirus disease began to unofficially become known as the “China virus”, and this, combined with certain world leaders being unable to hold China accountable for its misdeeds without being racist, led to an increase in the number of xenophobic attacks against Chinese diaspora across the world.

In India, too, the Tablighi Jamaat incident led to Muslims being blamed for the sudden surge in the number of infections across the country. However, people pointing fingers at Muslims failed to notice the Indian governments inefficiency and unpreparedness in tackling a pandemic that began after many warnings from global health authorities.

Scapegoating enables repressive governments to justify inaction on their part and allows them to begin mass surveillance against individuals they deem to be a threat to the existence of their regimes.

Lastly, while we fight attacks towards the stability of our democracies today in the face of a pandemic, we must take time to understand all the ways our systems were already fundamentally broken much before the virus hit us and disrupted normal life.

The idea of a “New Normal” must be more than just a phrase used to indicate newly imposed social distancing and personal protection methods. Instead, the “New Normal” must be one in which the economic and social disparities exacerbated by the old normal are identified and tackled effectively to make sure they do not continue existing in a world post the pandemic.

Most people probably do not have “safeguarding democracy” at the top of their personal to-do lists right now and with good reason. But it is important to know that more often than not, the people in power will do little to protect our rights and it will eventually fall upon us to act in a way that protects our fundamental and civil rights.

If we allow the lens of democracy that governs us to break now in the face of a pandemic, there is a good chance we will never again be able to fix it.

Featured Image via flickr
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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