What are the political aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Updated: Feb 16
Four case studies of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse in politics
by: Sara Kende and Istvan Miskolczy
With vaccines around the corner, all of us are hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be over and we can return to unrestricted life by the end of 2021. The unprecedented virus taught the world (among others) coping, caring, and cooperating more than anything else. Nonetheless, when it comes to politics, COVID-19 was not just about restrictions and vaccine contracts. In some cases, advantages were gained by certain countries or leaders using COVID-19 as a political excuse or tool. We are now presenting four of these case studies of coronavirus…
being used by politicians to gain personal advantages (Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel)
being the justification behind a possible mass surveillance (India)
being an excuse for restricting human rights and establishing censorship (China)
being used as a negotiating power in the Brexit talks (European Union)
We are not saying that in politics in the last year the ultimate focus was on getting as much advantages out of the pandemic as possible. Governments unequivocally worked very hard to save their citizens’ health and lives. Albeit, alongside this top priority, we suggest that some of them might have made use of coronavirus to advance their own political goals too.
DISCLAIMER: Alongside news and data, the article might contain the personal opinions of the authors, which are not necessarily represented by the universities and student associations of the authors (Aberdeen and Warwick) or The Gaudie Student Newspaper, or any advertisers.
GAINING PERSONAL ADVANTAGES - BENJAMIN NETANYAHU
COVID-19 has featured as a prominent part of election campaigns and all sorts of other power plays in the past year. Perhaps most remarkable of all examples is the case of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, who used the COVID-19 crisis to (at least temporarily) save his political career.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in three cases in late 2019 and is currently on trial.
The pandemic could not have come at a better time for him – the results of the third election in less than a year brought yet another political stalemate with his rival, Benny Gantz from the Blue-White Party, and the opening of his trial was looming close as well.
Just a week before the Prime Minister was to appear in court, Amir Ohana, a close confidant of Netanyahu’s, appointed the minister of justice in 2019 ordered the courts to be frozen as a safety measure.
Thus, Netanyahu’s trial was postponed to the 24th of May.
His other burning problem of the election stalemate was also resolved a few days later when Gantz and the Blue-White Party decided to set aside their distaste to join a unity government headed by a politician on trial for corruption considering the exceptional circumstances. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to rotate the premiership between the two of them, starting with the incumbent, switching over to Gantz after 18 months. This setup was formed in accordance with an amendment to the Basic Law of Government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Minister of Industry and Trade Naftali Bennett (L).
Photo courtesy of MDGovpics. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The grudging alliance held up for 7 months, then collapsed due to a loophole in the wording of the law, which automatically dissolves the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in case the budget is not approved by the deadline and keeps Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s seat. As PM, he is not legally obliged to resign unless he is convicted of his alleged crimes.
Critics of Netanyahu believe that he never intended to honour the agreement in the first place and only used the alliance to buy himself time to form a coalition more willing to pass the legislation that would give him immunity – something the Knesset has rejected in early 2020. The next election is set to take place on 23 March, just a year after the previous one.
“Netanyahu is taking us to elections just so he doesn’t have to show up in court,” Vice Prime Minister Gantz claimed after the collapse of the unity government at the end of December.
Netanyahu’s trial, which eventually began last May, had not seen many developments until recently, as the Prime Minister’s lawyers argued for more time to review evidence, and Netanyahu was excused from subsequent hearings, which were also postponed several times due to the pandemic. His next court appearance, where he presented his formal response to the charges finally took place on 8th February.
Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu pleaded not guilty to all charges – his narrative of the trial has always been that it is a witch-hunt aimed at removing him from the office. Judges are now considering delaying the hearing of witnesses against the Prime Minister until after the election, as the defence claims that would interfere with the election. Conversely, many political analysts claim that the trial will not significantly affect voters, as it has been in the news cycle for so long that it has lost its salience with the electorate.
The pandemic has helped Netanyahu rescue his career until now, but it might finish it off too.
Analysts agree that the upcoming election is a referendum on Netanyahu, but speculate that his handling of the COVID crisis, rather than his trial, is going to determine the results. Many in Israel think that while Netanyahu was busy postponing his trial as much as possible, he lost sight of the real problem that the pandemic posed, and that may bring his downfall.
BUILDING CONTACT TRACING APPS VIOLATING PRIVACY - INDIA
“The coronavirus is a gift to authoritarian states including India. (…) Now we are panic-running into a super surveillance state” – said Arundhati Roy Indian author and activist. Indeed, India’ government seems to have taken advantage of the global pandemic when it comes to surveillance.
COVID-19 broke out at a time when Indian officials were heavily criticised over the infamous anti-Muslim citizenship law, which even ignited heavy demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people. These quickly ceased upon the national lockdown, with some protesters even imprisoned.
Nonetheless, the Indian government did not stop here. A new contact-tracing app called Aarogya Setu (meaning “bridge to health”) was invented which was made compulsory for many people, including both private and public sector workers. Some however raised concerns on the app in fact being a test-run of a massive digital state surveillance system (Brar, 2020).
“As more and more people use it, its effectiveness will increase”
– Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the government-built smartphone app of the country in a tweet, which was to help in tracking and tracing the spread of COVID-19.
Narendra Modi addressing All India Conference. Photo courtesy of narendramodiofficial.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Upon its launch in Spring 2020, Aarogya Setu rapidly reached the top of the leaderboard in terms of the number of downloads even before it was made mandatory for both public and private sector workers. This move of the Indian Government, however, raised heavy concerns over privacy as it traces users’ location and contacts via Bluetooth and GPS.
Officially “the App is aimed at augmenting the initiatives of the Government of India, particularly the Department of Health, in proactively reaching out to and informing the users of the app regarding risks, best practices and relevant advisories pertaining to the containment of COVID-19” – says the app’s Google Play description.
More precisely, it is said to be letting users know if and to what extent they have been in contact with a confirmed case based on their movements being tracked and calculating recommended measures accordingly.
What is not mentioned to a great extent is that Aarogya Setu also collects people’s name, phone number, gender, travel history and other personal information.
Besides storing these data alongside location information, the app also requires permanent access to Bluetooth and shares the collected data with the government
– the main features being the base of the app’s criticism.
Concerns were raised by many. Al Jazeera reported that digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation labelled the app as a “privacy minefield” adding that “it does not adhere to principles of (…) transparency and accountability”.
In addition, Nikhil Pahwa, editor of internet watchdog Medianama said that “any app that tracks who you have been in contact with and what location of all times is a clear violation of privacy”.
Even experts have identified many peculiarities of the app.
Clarance (2020) highlighted that unlike the COVID-19 track and trace application of the United Kingdom, Aarogya Setu is not an open-source “which means that it cannot be audited for security flaws by independent coders and researchers”.
Brar (2020) argued that the app was developed and published without much oversight. He even cited the analysis of the Paris-based Defensive Lab Agency, which found that the app could be used to turn on the microphone and to access contacts and other data. This is indeed a serious violation of privacy.
Ellis-Petersen (2020) also highlighted that the Indian Government was not particularly transparent about how and by which branch of the government the data will be handled. They have no binding policy that data will be repurposed or deleted after the pandemic – she also wrote in her analysis in The Guardian.
Quite many thus concerned that India’s government is building some sort of surveillance infrastructure using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse.
Certainly, if this is the case, such a watch over citizens would benefit them in identifying major protests and their organisers as well as opposition journalists, and in monitoring the social behaviour of the public. To deny these claims, Abhisek Singh, CEO of the app developer MyGovIndia told that “the government (…) will use information only for administering (…) medical interventions”.
Nonetheless, many remain concerned, especially as criticism on the same topic was addressed to the governments of Russia and China as well – with the latter also facing negative remarks on its track record of human rights violations amidst the pandemic.
OPPRESSING HUMAN RIGHTS - CHINA
2020 has been a sad year for human rights. Not just because in some cases freedom of speech has been trampled in the name of “avoiding misinformation about the virus” but also because public health measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus have limited our freedom of assembly and mobility. In many instances, governments have used these restrictions as a justification for tightening their control on the population and cracking down on critical voices.
Public health measures “should not be a weapon to quash dissent, or control the population or perpetuate power,” UN High Commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet stated in a recent interview.
Several countries have shown these tendencies but perhaps the most brutal crackdown on human rights was seen in the country where the virus originated.
Although Chinese authorities denied the severity of the virus until late January, censorship around it began a month earlier in social media. Even politically neutral phrases, such as “unknown Wuhan pneumonia” were banned on WeChat and other popular Chinese platforms. Some censored terms referred to information that was later made official, such as the fact that the virus was contagious. The censorship of information concerning the virus limited public awareness about the virus and the possible ways of protecting themselves from it, which played a significant part in the first major outbreak in Wuhan.
In the last days of January 2020, the Chinese authorities drastically changed their attitude and imposed extremely severe lockdown measures on the inhabitants of Wuhan and some other cities in the Hubei province. Despite the vigilant censorship, videos circulated on the Internet about officials sealing apartment doors while the residents were begging to be let out. Heart-breaking stories about people losing their lives because they couldn’t access treatment for their pre-existing illnesses and children starving in their apartments, separated from their quarantined caretakers also emerged.
The brutal measures did succeed in curbing the spread of the virus, albeit at a huge cost to some.
The official narrative glorified the suffering of tens of thousands for the sake of suppressing the virus. "We do not avoid speaking about sacrifices, because sacrifices have led to the glorious victory of our nation," the state news agency Xinhua stated.
This view, which prioritises the interests of the community over the interests of the individual to such an extent, is not something that the virus brought about in China. What COVID-19 has done is shown that when push comes to shove, China is ready to brutally violate the human rights of the Han Chinese, just like it has done with the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers.
USING COVID-19 IN NEGOTIATING - EUROPEAN UNION
On the weekend just before Christmas, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and many other members and non-members of the European Union suspended inbound travel from the United Kingdom due to a more infectious strain of the coronavirus.
France ordered a full border closure for 48 hours on the basis of the new “British” variant of the coronavirus.
Effective for any traffic including aircrafts, ferries, motor vehicles, and the Eurostar train, this move has caused major disruptions in the Channel Tunnel and the area of Dover. As no traffic could cross the La Manche by any modes of transport, thousands of lorries and carriers were waiting in line for an agreement between Paris and London.
This agreement (which, in the end, was reached, and included the compulsory COVID-testing of those lorry drivers entering France) can be viewed as the ‘mock agreement’ before the ‘real deal’ on Christmas Day, which ended 11 months of negotiating and ruled out a no-deal Brexit (turns out you can barrage the Farage).
EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo courtesy of GUE/NGL. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Originally, the EU Summit on 15 October was the deadline for any agreement to be concluded, though this has been constantly extended, including a not-so-firm deadline on the 13th of December, which was pushed back again with PM Johnson warning British businesses to ‘get ready’.
The new COVID-variant “could not have come in a better time” for the EU countries, from the point of view of Brexit negotiations.
This was their UNO +4 and they have played it perfectly.
With such a large-scale travel disruption (justified by the defence against the new strain) they could show London how a no-deal Brexit would affect courier transport across their borders. Closing off one of the most important trade routes (Dover-Calais) in not just Europe, but the whole world could have left the UK isolated more than ever. This crossing accounts for approximately 20% of the UK’s trade goods, which Johnson simply could not lose with the “economy already having shrunk during the pandemic at a scary speed”.
It is no surprise thus that major trade disruptions were introduced just two weeks before the final deadline of the Brexit transition.
Before the travel ban, a no-deal Brexit seemed to be “very likely” which would have caused an even bigger confusion at the ports and train stations of South England.
The 48-hour chaos was frustrating enough for not just anyone directly involved but also for businesses for whom it was reported to be quite expensive. This includes businesses trading with not just products but also with services and investment on both the British and the EU side. It was in the interest of the EU too to have some sort of an agreement in place before the end of 2020.
Dover ferry terminal. Photo courtesy of selkovjr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Supply chains [were] disrupted just days before the U.K. [was] set to end the Brexit transition period without a free trade agreement with the EU — its largest and closest trading partner – highlighted Basu (2020). Clearly, the travel ban of the major EU countries on the basis of COVID-19 have moved No. 10 to approach the negotiations with a (to some extent) somewhat changed viewpoint and thus move towards a deal rather than a no-deal – widely claimed to be more beneficial for both sides.
Many people share the concern that the measures taken to fight the pandemic caused damage that will reverberate for a long time after the health crisis has been solved. Most of them think of the deep recession that is coming, but something has suffered an even more severe blow in this process than the economy has: the respect of democratic values and human rights – which these four case studies were intended to illustrate.
Cover photo courtesy of Miroslava Chrienova via Pixabay.
Published on 15/02/2021. Last edited 16/02/2021.