In Iran, newspapers are now banned, as are public protests. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has seized unilateral control of the government, with only himself to determine when it’s safe for democracy to return. China moved quickly and ruthlessly to control information, seizing Li Wenliang, the martyred doctor who first warned of the approaching pandemic, and silencing journalists whose reporting contradicted the official narrative of a crisis averted through authoritarian rule.
Throughout the world, governments, companies and political parties are jockeying for advantage, using the fear of Covid-19 to expand their power and to diminish your ability to check that power. The United States has hardly been immune. The Justice Department quickly sought sweeping authority to hold suspects without trial indefinitely, and local governments have abrogated open meetings laws. With more than 30 million jobless in the U.S. and fear growing with food lines, employers are firing workers who raise concerns about working conditions and shortages of protective gear, even when those workers are doctors and nurses on the front lines saving lives.
In country after country, police enforcing quarantines through selective violence and even killings. Surveillance is expanding rapidly, with smartphones, street cameras and drones becoming instruments for tracking citizens.
“Pre-corona, if we were sleepwalking into the surveillance state, now we are panic-running into a super-surveillance state,” the novelist Arundhati Roy told the Guardian recently. She was speaking of India, but could as easily have been speaking about Hungary, or Russia, or any number of countries.
If history, unchecked, becomes tomorrow’s roadmap, this erosion will spread, and remain entrenched long after the threat recedes. It has happened before, after 9/11 in the United States, across Latin America after the Cuban revolution, in Russia before and after glasnost. Today’s reflex toward repression is, however, singularly perilous in that it is global and simultaneous. The fundamentals are being redrawn, everywhere and at once.
Like public health systems, accountability journalism is strained in this moment of crisis, reporting on many of these steps, as well as the illness, its victims, the financial disasters engulfing vulnerable populations and so much more. The avalanche of vital news is overwhelming. And yet, once the disease has run its course, we risk finding that beyond the grief lurked one more loss, of cherished rights and liberties that vanished while no one was looking, in ways that may take generations to regain.
That is why we have created UnderCovid as a home for reporting and analysis of these threats to civic rights. UnderCovid shines a spotlight on encroachments that exploit the fear of coronavirus to redraw the balance of power between government and citizen. It both links to news published elsewhere and produces original coverage with a single focus: to map, expose and analyze moves lock down civil liberties and government accountability, under cover of crisis. And it’s a place for conversation and community.
Use the “share your story” link to tell us about what’s happening where you live, to pass on a story tip, link, or video. Sign up for our mailing list to receive the UnderCovid weekly newsletter. Particularly now, journalists can’t be everywhere, and we’ll count on you to send up the flares.
Diana Jean Schemo
President and Co-founder