Russia may be the most dramatic example. When COVID arrived there, Vladimir Putin hid. He reportedly holed himself up in his secret lakeside mansion, emerging briefly in a yellow hazmat suit to greet doctors on the front lines. Throughout the pandemic, which has killed an estimated 650,000 Russians, Putin and other senior officials alternately downplayed the threat or exaggerated it in order to impose restrictions on political activity.
Under the cover of COVID, Russian officials expanded state surveillance, suppressed critical speech, banned protests, and forcibly quarantined political opponents.
“COVID was a gift to Putin,” said Andrei Soldatov, a leading independent Russian journalist and technology expert, who is now living in exile.
In the first few months of the pandemic, Putin, echoing the rhetoric of President Donald Trump, cracked down on “fake news” about the spread of the disease.
In March 2020 the media regulator Roskomnadzor ordered the removal of “inaccurate information” from 20 independent Russian media sites.
On March 31, the Duma, or Russian parliament, passed an amendment introducing five year prison terms for anyone spreading “false information.” Putin signed it into the law the next day.
Putin also used concern about public health as a pretext to restrict protests and to round up his political opponents. In March, 2021, as Russia was battling a new surge of COVID infections driven by the Delta variant, the Russian government arrested critics, including members of Alexei Navalny’s organization and the Punk Rock band Pussy Riot, accusing them of encouraging participation in banned political protests and violating COVID restrictions. Some were confined to their homes for months.
Putin was effectively trolling the small liberal opposition, which had earlier demanded that he take aggressive action to limit the spread of the disease.
The COVID emergency seemed to miraculously abate by late June 2020, in time for a major military parade through Red Square and a public referendum to change the Constitution and allow Putin to extend his rule until 2036. While Putin encouraged Russians to vote, political protests continued to be banned in order to protect public health.
Putin was not alone in exploiting the pandemic to consolidate power. Autocratic governments of all sizes and ideologies, from Egypt to Iran, and from China to Nicaragua, employed similar strategies, using the pandemic as a pretext to increase censorship, expand surveillance, and crack down on critical media.
China leveraged its purported triumph over the disease in the early phases to assert new authority, adopting a more aggressive military posture and cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, democracies were weakened.
In many countries, dysfunctional and divided political systems proved incapable of managing the public debate over mask mandates and lockdowns. Populist leaders, including President Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India, attacked and undermined independent institutions, including medical experts and the media, that challenged the narrative that COVID was under control and would disappear “like magic.”
Of course Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine dramatically increased repression inside the country, with the effective criminalization of all criticism and the end of independent media. But the pandemic crackdown set the stage.
In many countries around the world, the same pattern played out. The rights of citizens were eroded, autocrats were empowered, and the democratic crisis deepened.
Of course the COVID-19 pandemic was a global health crisis. But it was also a political crisis that shifted the global balance of power in ways we are just beginning to understand.
Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is co-author with Robert Mahoney of The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free.
He will be speaking at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Taiwan in June.