By Yash Vardhan Singh*
The uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic mimics the fog that engulfs any military conflict. As countries, leaders, and citizens work to deal with the crisis, what pre-existing trends are likely to gain traction? What characteristics of the pandemic could contribute to strengthening these trends? This article considers three trends: further fractures in geopolitical rivalries through conflicting narratives; rising authoritarianism; and attempts to normalise surveillance.
Geopolitical Conflict of Narratives
With an eye on the post-COVID-19 world, major powers seem to be constructing competing narratives for geopolitical gain. The US-China perception war is the most obvious case-in-point. The US maintains that China is responsible for the crisis because of Beijing’s delayed information disclosure, and the virus’ origin in Wuhan. On the periphery of this accusation are fringe discourses on the likelihood of a bio leak, or potential bio warfare. US President Donald Trump’s terming of COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” is part of this narrative-building.
As the death toll in the US rises, domestic political pressure could propel the country’s leadership to divert attention by redirecting focus on China’s culpability. China too has continued its propaganda, which includes accusing the US military of causing the COVID-19 spread via covert means. It continues to deny intentional information suppression, and has also been opaque about information on the early progression of the spread and its impact in terms of deaths and infections. Globally, it is working to mount a narrative of being an effective responder and responsible global power by exporting health equipment to the EU, South East Asia, and even the US.
There are also efforts to prioritise competition over coordinated responses to the pandemic. For example, the US halted funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), alleging ‘China-centrism’ and the WHO’s ineffective response to COVID-19. A lack of global consensus has also impeded the UN Security Council (UNSC) from providing leadership during this crisis. The UNSC remains in gridlock without a single resolution being adopted. The US was initially pressing for a UN resolution that would largely blame China for the pandemic, with the priority now shifting to a condemnation of the WHO—one that Beijing would undoubtedly veto.
The US has also engaged in diversion of scarce medical supplies being shipped to other countries via outbidding and other tactics. The latest victim in this regard is Germany, which lost inbound n95 masks due to the US’s actions. China is also using its position of recovery for strengthening global influence via “mask diplomacy.” Under a veneer of aid, by exporting medical supplies, Beijing is seeking to expand geopolitical influence and extend its dominance in global medical supply chains.
The pandemic, given its unprecedented nature, cross-cutting impact, and uncertain future, demands strong domestic responses from leaders. In several cases, responses to contain COVID-19’s repercussions have necessitated restrictions on individual rights and liberties. However, the same set of motivations have offered leaders an additional opportunity to consolidate power and expand state control at the risk of diluting democratic values in a post-pandemic world.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban managed to get parliamentary sanction to rule by decree, effectively circumventing democratic institutions with no end date. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the pandemic to postpone his corruption trial and block parliament from functioning. The Philippine parliament passed legislation granting President Rodrigo Duterte extensive emergency powers. Monarchies like Jordan are clamping down on freedoms, particularly on press and movement.
As the crisis worsens, authoritarian leaders could view this as an opportunity to seize power with popular approval, and project pandemic containment as a justification for authoritarian leadership. If combined with powerful propaganda, this trend could pose serious long-term threats to democratic values globally.
Normalisation of Surveillance
Expansion of surveillance is another trend associated with growing state control in response to the pandemic. Several countries have increased surveillance to track disease cases and enforce lockdowns effectively. Widespread panic has oriented the primary focus to containing and managing the crisis, which could legitimise rampant government surveillance without checks and balances. Among other things, this could further complicate the existing ‘transparency vs security’ debate.
The access that expanded surveillance provides the state, and its wide-ranging implications, may be difficult to roll back. Governments tend to maintain expanded powers beyond an emergency. For example, the US’ ‘Global War on Terror’ led to extensive domestic surveillance in the form of the years long PRISM programme. Other countries are reportedly following suit. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu has used the crisis to grant extraordinary domestic surveillance powers to the country’s domestic intelligence agency. In China, pre-existing surveillance activities such as CCTV-based facial recognition, GPS-based mobile phone location surveillance, tracking digital payment locations and other technologies integrated to national ID cards etc are being deployed as pandemic response.
The post-COVID-19 world might witness greater normalisation of surveillance. This could have several negative implications, transforming the relationship between governments and the governed.
The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to enable recent negative global trends to gain further momentum. Enveloped in the fog of this pandemic, geopolitical rivalries, authoritarianism, and surveillance appear to be on the rise worldwide. These trends are likely to have a lasting impact in a post-pandemic world.
*Yash Vardhan Singh is a Research Assistant with the Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS), IPCS.