COVID-19 not only kills thousands of lives; it is the excuse to slash citizen liberties. To combat the pandemic, governments close borders and confine populations, despite their right to freedom of movement on national territory and in the “Schengen area” of the European Union. A space that covers 26 of its 27 member countries (all except Ireland), which have abolished internal border controls in the EU and which, for Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region in Italy, and populist comrade of Salvini in the Lega party, “no longer exists.”
Governments suspend parliaments and, in some cases, elections to renew them, such as those of the Basque Country and Galicia, in Spain. It is as if the municipal elections of April 7 had not taken place in Alaska. In France, Macron was called “irresponsible” for allowing the first round of the French municipalities, on March 15. But, after a historical abstention (more than 50%), he suspended the second round, scheduled for March 22.
With the people confined and without parliamentary opposition, some rulers yield to totalitarian temptation. Under the pretext of avoiding false news that raise alarm about the coronavirus, they pursue any criticism of its management, whether it is about the pandemic or not. They want to impose “the official truth”. They demand that the population wear masks because of the risk of contagion, while they put a muzzle on them.
Reporters Without Borders data on press freedom around the world leaves the United States 45th out of 180 countries, behind Suriname, Botswana or Burkina Faso, where governments control the media, they can jail journalist critics and impose large fines on the media to force them to close down.
Spain is in 29th place, with problems similar to those of the USA. Republican President Donald Trump has shown journalist contempt, if not hatred. Spanish President Pedro Sánchez, a socialist, and his vice-president Pablo Iglesias, a populist, have not been more respectful. Both hide the truth with their words and call what is in fact an “Exception State” an “Alarm State”. In Chile and Lebanon, the government has imposed a “curfew”.
Almost all governments monitor their populations with technological means, as in totalitarian China. They track communications and control the movements of citizens with the geolocation of their mobile phones. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu has authorized anti-terrorism technology to track coronavirus patients.
We are reaching extremes of which many fear there will be no return. Spanish President Sánchez calls it a “new normal”, which eerily evokes the fascist “Ordine Nuovo” of the 1960s Italy. In Hungary, the populist Orbán imposes his “illiberal democracy” and accumulates more power than any other European ruler. In Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh and Turkey, journalists, health workers, opponents and any critics of their governments’ handling of the coronavirus are arrested. There will be a “before” and “after” the pandemic. But in the “after” the future will no longer be what it was in the “before”.
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