https://pakistan.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_pf/features/2020/09/16/feature-01
Health

Weak COVID-19 responses undermine strongman regimes

Salaam Times and AFP

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A man shows his arm after receiving a vaccination during the seasonal flu vaccination campaign in Moscow on September 7, amid the coronavirus pandemic. [Natalia KOLESNIKOVA/AFP]

Posturing, repression and a distaste for facts: the world's strongman regimes have dealt with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in much the same way they deal with everything else, analysts say. They include the governments of China, Russia and Iran.

But the sometimes blatant disregard for the well-being of populations, coupled with sheer incompetence, has undermined whatever trust citizens have in such leaders.

"They all have a similar type of leadership behaviour, a macho leadership," said Uma Kambhampati, a development economist at University of Reading in Great Britain.

"This kind of pandemic must be irritating the hell out of them."

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Chinese security personnel stand outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing September 8 ahead of a ceremony to honour people who fought against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. [NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP]

No one else to blame

After a highly visible public presence early in the crisis, leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are now avoiding the limelight, Kambhampati told AFP.

"In the initial stages they could blame others, but now, six months down the line, they can't blame anybody else," she said.

"It's not a comfortable position for them."

One typical response has been to stifle criticism coming from health workers and other essential personnel, Amnesty International said in a report, citing China, Russia, Malaysia and Pakistan as examples.

In a July report, entitled "Exposed, Silenced, Attacked", Amnesty highlighted cases of governments imposing restrictions to prevent such workers from voicing concerns about policy.

Their worries often relate to unsafe working conditions, lack of adequate personal protective equipment, insufficient training and inadequate testing of healthcare workers.

'Spreading rumours'

Amnesty cites the case in China of ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who warned colleagues about the coronavirus and was promptly sanctioned for "spreading rumours".

In Egypt, authorities have used charges of "spreading false news" and "terrorism" to arrest, between March and June, at least nine doctors and pharmacists for speaking out, according to Amnesty.

The same charges were brought against Mohamed Mounir, a 65-year-old journalist working for Al Jazeera, who died of COVID-19 in prison in July.

In Pakistan, police broke up a protest by doctors against their working conditions and lack of equipment, ploughing into the crowd with batons and arresting dozens, Amnesty said.

"Authoritarian countries have a very particular pattern that was reinforced by the pandemic," said Benno Zogg, a senior researcher at the Centre for Security Studies in Switzerland.

"They want to give the image of being strong, that was true for Russia and China, to show that authoritarian regimes are better able to manage such a crisis than democratic ones," he told AFP.

"They took several steps to basically control society and make sure that there was no alternative information nor alternative opinions," he said.

Disinformation and lies

Both the Russian and Chinese regimes have been caught flooding the news and social media with blatant disinformation about the virus.

The Kremlin with much fanfare announced it was "first" to develop a coronavirus vaccine, but health scientists and medical analysts around the world have raised concerns suggesting the unproven, untested drug may be in fact more dangerous than COVID-19.

More than half of doctors polled in Russia say they would not administer the Kremlin's "Sputnik V" coronavirus vaccine, Russia's RBC reported in August.

Russian hackers have targeted British, US and Canadian vaccine research and development organisations, the United Kingdom's National Cyber Security Centre said in July.

Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has been attempting to re-write history and continue pushing the narrative of China's "heroic deeds" in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in local and international media.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Beijing has been actively attempting to deflect criticism of its role in the coronavirus pandemic by promoting conspiracy theories.

The warning adds to a series of alerts and reports accusing government-backed hackers in Iran, North Korea, Russia and China of malicious activity related to the coronavirus pandemic, from pumping out false news to targeting workers and scientists.

The Iranian regime has been engaging in spreading disinformation and lies about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early on, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) suffered widespread ridicule online and was even dismissed by Iran's Health Ministry and an adviser to the president for unveiling an "amazing" but spurious COVID-19 detection device.

Increasing surveillance

Abuses of human rights have mostly consisted of restricting free expression and assembly, say analysts.

One notable exception is Belarus, where chaotic handling of the pandemic, compounded by fraud allegations in a presidential election, sparked mass demonstrations.

The governments of the Philippines, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and others are guilty of keeping a lid on critical voices concerning the pandemic, they say.

Using a need to stem the spread of COVID-19 as a pretext, many regimes have boosted spending on surveillance equipment -- often made in China -- such as GPS tracking, closed-circuit television (CCTV), face recognition and ID-checking software.

"Once the surveillance is in place, it can be easily used in the next crisis, or even as a permanent measure," said Zogg of the Centre for Security Studies.

In the meantime, some strongmen will have to confront dwindling public support because of their shortcomings, or even ridicule for backing discredited COVID-19 remedies such as hydroxychloroquine or outlandish ones like hand washing with petrol or herb concoctions.

"I do not think any of the strong leaders has come out of this looking better," said University of Reading's Kambhampati.

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