In global war on coronavirus, some fear civil rights are collateral damage
LONDON/BANGKOK/DELHI: In Armenia, journalists must by law include information from the government in their stories about COVID-19. In the Philippines, the president has told security forces that if anyone violates the lockdown they should “shoot them dead”. In Hungary, the premier can rule by decree indefinitely.
Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers and human rights campaigners said.
While such experts agree extraordinary measures are needed to tackle the deadliest pandemic in a century, some are worried about an erosion of core rights, and the risk that sweeping measures will not be rolled back afterwards.
“In many ways, the virus risks replicating the reaction to Sept. 11,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the welter of security and surveillance legislation imposed around the world after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.
“People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” he told Reuters.
Roth was speaking about legislation in countries including the United States, Britain and EU states which increased collection of visa and immigrant data and counter-terrorism powers.
Some measures imposed in response to a crisis can become normalised, such as longer security queues at airports as a trade-off for feeling safer flying. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar trade-offs may become widely acceptable around issues such as surveillance, according to some political and social commentators.
South Korea’s use of mobile phone and other data to track potential carriers of the virus and impose quarantines has been a successful strategy and is a model that could be replicated around the world to guard against pandemics, they say.
Political consultant Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese minister, said people’s obsession with privacy had made it harder to combat threats like pandemics, when technology to trace the virus could help. - Reuters