Are Authorities Taking a Militarized Approach to Public Health?

This 14th edition of Freedom House’s weekly newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, discusses the problem of militarized public health enforcement, a growing political crisis in Zimbabwe, and troubling trends in the United States.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

This week in Freedom House’s newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, we start out with a new feature by Research Assistant Elisha Aaron on the problem of “securitization,” or the tendency to turn to security-based solutions—implemented by the military and police forces—even for public health problems. In some countries, this trend has produced militarized, violent quarantine enforcement, with armed security personnel attacking or even killing people while imposing lockdowns. More broadly, securitization contributes to a continued imbalance of priorities, with resources directed toward repressive mechanisms instead of assistance that would enable people to shelter in place or receive adequate health care. Long-term improvement of human rights conditions will depend on a shift away from securitized approaches to public health.

Bangladesh police during COVID
Law enforcement urges people to stay at home amid the coronavirus outbreak in Bangladesh's capital. Image credit: Sk Hasan Ali /

The United States

Freedom House remains deeply concerned about political attacks on the upcoming US general elections in November. We issued a statement in response to President Trump’s call last week to delay the elections based on false claims about voter fraud. The fact is that while the president does not have the power to delay the vote, his attacks on the process are contributing to mistrust, undermining faith in our democracy, and preventing bipartisan agreement on urgent electoral preparations. Incumbent leaders should focus on making it possible to hold safe and fair elections in November, not airing groundless complaints about a system for which they are ultimately responsible.

In more positive news, CNN has a report about how US media organizations are preparing to cover these unusual elections. Freedom House also recently published a Q&A with election expert Rick Hasen on ways to avoid a crisis in November. For US voters, please take the time to educate yourself about how this year’s elections will be different and what to expect on and after election day.

Around the World

We’re keeping a close eye on the emerging political crisis in Zimbabwe, where the government is cracking down on the opposition and using the coronavirus as a pretext. A planned anticorruption protest on July 31 was curtailed as the government shut down the capital, arrested opposition organizers and journalists, and drove others into hiding. The protests had been spurred by a previous wave of political abductions in May. You can read about our ongoing responses to the crisis on the Freedom House website.

Here are some of the other key stories we are watching around the world:

  • In Kyrgyzstan, human rights defender Azimjon Askarov died in prison after authorities dismissed reports of his underlying health conditions amid the pandemic. Askarov was arrested and imprisoned on false charges 10 years ago, and his death was attributed to pneumonia, but the state no longer distinguishes between pneumonia and COVID-19 cases. I interviewed Askarov in prison some eight years ago, and like everyone who knew him, I was humbled by his commitment to human rights and his faith. Freedom House joins people around the world in mourning his death and demanding justice for his family.
  • Chinese authorities have postponed by one year the September elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council as part of an intensifying crackdown on democracy in the territory. The postponement comes after a wave of arrests and disqualifications of activists and prodemocracy candidates. It is a clear example of using the coronavirus as a pretext to disadvantage the political opposition.
  • In Russia, Moscow officials have instituted politicized restrictions on mass gatherings. Last week the capital’s mayor announced that, due to the health crisis, a ban on rallies would continue through the end of August—even as government-sponsored gatherings are allowed to proceed as part of the city’s reopening.
  • Last week, COVID-19 cases in China’s Xinjiang region spiked, leading to concern that the virus would infect the million-plus Uighurs and other Muslims detained in internment camps. Conditions in the camps are extremely poor, with overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and physical maltreatment. However, the Chinese government’s secrecy regarding the camps makes it unlikely that any outbreak will be publicly acknowledged.
  • Just as gender-based violence has increased under lockdowns, so too has abuse of children. In Indonesia, where shelters have closed under social distancing measures, more than 800 cases have been reported since March, with nearly 60 percent involving sexual abuse. Many more have likely gone unreported, especially for the most vulnerable populations, such as children living on the streets.
  • Disinformation about COVID-19 has proliferated in Latin America, which has been inundated with the virus. Prominent individuals and institutions have promoted dangerous false cures, such as the bleach solution touted by politicians in Bolivia or the ginger consumption practiced in Peru. In the latter country, a widespread conspiracy theory that 5G mobile-service towers cause the disease has resulted in the detention of at least eight engineers.

Global Democracy

These are other global issues we are watching:

  • Late last month, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies stated that the pandemic could trigger mass migration when countries begin to reopen, as millions of people have become impoverished under restrictions. Such movement could lead to a rise in human trafficking, exploitation, and violent or politicized responses.
  • Independent experts from the UN warned last week that the pandemic has left people increasingly dependent on digital technologies. Yet growing restrictions on online activity place a number of human rights at risk.

That’s all for this week. Stay safe and stay free.

For Freedom House’s continuing analysis of the COVID-19 crisis, with stories from around the world about how states are responding, please subscribe to Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic here.