We’ve been hearing the phrase “Never let a crisis go to waste” a lot since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And in some countries, that means rulers are grabbing the opportunity presented by the people’s fear to use emergency powers to impose draconian and, perhaps unnecessary, rules on the country.
We’ve seen some of the petty tyrants here in America who are taking the opportunities presented by the chaos to impose their political agendas on the public.
But what if you lived in a country ruled by a dictator wannabe? In Serbia, the people are witnessing some of the most serious strong-arm tactics in Europe.
Since President Aleksandar Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, parliament has been sidelined, borders shut, a 12-hour police-enforced curfew imposed and people over 65 banned from leaving their homes — some of Europe’s strictest measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Serbian leader, who makes dramatic daily appearances issuing new decrees, has assumed full power, prompting an outcry from opponents who say he has seized control of the state in an unconstitutional manner.
When people are terrified, they appear willing to give up a little freedom for security. Best they take care or they will end up with neither.
Rodoljub Sabic, a lawyer and former state commissioner for personal data protection, says that by proclaiming a state of emergency, Vucic has assumed “full supremacy” over decision-making during the crisis, although his constitutional role is only ceremonial.
“He issues orders which are automatically accepted by the government,” Sabic said. “No checks and balances.”
It’s “populist” leaders in former Communist countries in Eastern Europe who are leading the charge toward authoritarianism. While almost everyone agrees that emergency powers given to government are necessary, much of what is being done to combat the pandemic appears less a matter of stemming the outbreak as it does controlling the population.
In Hungary, parliament on Monday passed a law giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government the right to rule by decree for as long as a state of emergency declared March 11 is in effect.
The law also amends the criminal code to include two new crimes. It sets prison terms of up to five years for those convicted of spreading false information about the pandemic and up to eight years for those interfering with efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, like a curfew or mandatory quarantine.
Rights groups say the law creates the possibility of an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and gives Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights.
In Israel, there is unprecedented surveillance on cellphones to keep track of people. Russia has taken the opportunity to crack down on dissent by attacking those who spread “false” information or criticize the government.
The question isn’t so much are all these measures necessary to fight the pandemic. The real question is whether or not they will disappear once the danger is passed. Some of us may be willing to trade a little freedom for security. But almost all of us would insist that the government relinquish these powers once the danger of the pandemic has passed.
Dealing with the local tyrants who arrest pastors or close gun stores is relatively easy. But putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to reining in state power is something totally different.
I fear that in some countries, it will be a lot more difficult than people think.