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April 16, 2020, 8:24 a.m. EDT

We must act now to prevent authoritarianism from going viral

The coronavirus pandemic provides the perfect excuse for aspiring dictators to consolidate their power

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By Patrick Gaspard

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As we take the fight to COVID-19, we also must do everything we can to protect the health of our democracies. More to the point, we must recognize that, in many ways, defending public health and defending democracy are two fronts in the same battle.

Fortunately, civil-society organizations and individuals are not powerless in the face of pandemic crackdowns. After more than three decades on the front lines in defense of democracy, we at the Open Society Foundations have learned some relevant lessons.

Lessons for democracy

For starters, we must use every tool available to protect civil liberties.

While the pandemic calls for social distancing, it does not justify police brutality and abuse of government power. The instant that political leaders start restricting free speech and the right to protest, or spurn checks on their power, the risk of a slide into authoritarianism becomes real. Governments that start to test these limits must be held accountable immediately.

The second lesson is that we must resist scapegoating. In responding to the pandemic, too many governments have sought to label COVID-19 a “Chinese” virus, setting the stage for surveillance and stigmatization of people of Chinese descent.

As a Haitian-American, I witnessed such persecution firsthand during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that AIDS was being transmitted by “homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians.” As a result of that unscientific, biased messaging, the U.S. started detaining Haitian asylum seekers in a horrific Guantánamo Bay prison camp, which actually undermined efforts to prevent the spread of HIV.

Finally, we must address the underlying economic and social disparities that pandemics tend to exacerbate. To see how the coronavirus has laid bare America’s profound inequities , look no further than Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, which now has the highest infection rate on the planet. More broadly, the crisis is demonstrating once again that far too many American families lack access to health care, paid sick leave, worker protections, personal savings, and other basic needs.

Safeguarding democracy

Even as we fend off new attacks on democracy and civil rights, we must use this moment to recognize all the ways our societies were stripping the rights of citizens, refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers before the pandemic hit.

Yes, concerns about the state of democracy is not most people’s main concern nowadays. But if safeguarding democracy is not on your own personal “to-do” list, it is safe to assume that it isn’t on anyone else’s, either.

Sadly, too many of those in power will never take it upon themselves to protect our rights. We must do that for ourselves. Democracy is more than just a system of governance; it is a lens through which to view the world and one’s place in it. If we break that lens during an emergency, we may never see ourselves the same way again.

Patrick Gaspard, a former United States ambassador to South Africa, is president of the Open Society Foundations.

This article was published with permission of Project Syndicate Viral Authoritarianism

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