COVID-19 Op-ed

The militarized COVID-19: An opportunity or a threat to democracy and human rights?

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Chen, Li LiDr. Li Li Chen is a current lecturer at
the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidade
Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) of Timor-Leste. She had a Ph.D. from the
University of Florida in 2018. Her research interests include the dynamics of
gender and peacekeeping, gender and development, as well as politics in
Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Timor-Leste. Her latest publication
“Women in Agriculture in Timor-Leste: State of Emergency and COVID-19
Impacts” funded by Oxfam in Timor-Leste supported by the Australian
Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Governance
for Development Program is accessible at:

COVID-19 pandemic has become a human rights and democratic
crisis worldwide. To date, COVID-19 already infected almost 34 million and
caused almost 1 million deaths (Worldmeter, 2020). Many affected states
justified the militarization of public health concern, which often took place
in the form of suspension and curtailment of political and civil rights of
citizens while empowering disproportionately to police and military sector
(Chen, 2020). Consequently, it rings alarm about diminishing democracy and
human rights for some, while for others, it sharpens the need for
strengthening current democratic system and human rights
ramifications of securitizing COVID-19 are worrying, since it permits
political leaders to gain extensive power or to silence their political
opponents. The Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte gained special powers
through the passage of the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” in March (D. Jr,
2020). Duterte could allocate the national budget and enforce security
measures with little check and balance. Meanwhile, Duterte forced to shut
down ABS-CBN, a major network, by accusing it of “favoring a political
opponent in the 2016 election (Gutierrez,
2020).” What is worse, by empowering the military and the police, his
emergency order caused surging cases of human rights violation and killing of
citizens (Wurth and Conde, 2020).
It also allows leaders to limit the right of expression and
right to correct and immediate information of their people. Take China for
example, although the Chinese government was notorious for its early cover-up
and spread false or misinformation, it was able to censor and filter
information available to the public in the name of preventing fake news
(Griffith and Jiang, 2020; Josh, 2020). Articles on the media and social
media were deleted on a daily basis, (Schneider, 2020), and foreign
journalists were expelled (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Medical staffers who
are at the frontlines were prohibited to speak to the public: while deceased
Dr. Li Wenliang were investigated and told not to ‘spread the rumor’ by the
police, Dr. Ai Fen from the Wuhan Central hospital, went missing after she
criticized censorship about the coronavirus in public (BBC, 2020; Reporters
without Borders, 2020). It is concerning that citizens might not be able to
access to correct and updated information and data behind the reported
“numbers” of infected cases and death tolls.
Under the security skin lie in the
leaders’ intentions to affirm their authoritarian rule and strengthen the
enforcement tools. Securitization puts forth the importance of order and
hierarchy which requires obedience and conformity of citizens, which may not
come back to normal after the crisis passes.
What is more, securitization distracts
the public attention and criticism from governments’ failing responses to
COVID-19 pandemic towards some groups relatively disadvantaged and less
visible. For instance, the U.S. president Donald Trump’s used ‘Chinese virus’
to shift the attention away from his obvious failure to stop the spread of
COVID-19 (Al Jazeera, 2020). As all governments are occupied with COVID-19,
securitization risks unleashing and disseminating violence, hatred and
resentments fuelled by xenophobia and misogyny against particular vulnerable
and minority groups (Tavernise
and Oppel Jr., 2020).
Does it mean that we have no way to stop or mitigate the
dangerous trend of militarization and its harmful implications to human
rights and democracy? It depends on the contexts and how we respond to it.
The securitization of COVID-19 may be manipulated, but it also fuels the
civic activism as well as popular demands for political reform. In Thailand,
pro-democracy students took to the street to defend new constitution and
elections, and asked the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to step down
(Ratcliffe, 2020). In Philippines, thousands of protesters expressed their
collective dissatisfaction towards “the slow, incompetent and militarist
response of Duterte’s government to the COVID-19 pandemic (Mongaya,
2020).” In Timor-Leste, journalists and civil-society organizations condemned
the government’s move to criminalize defamation (Neon-Metin, 2020). People
are pushing back in spite of the government suppression and threat of arrest.
Waves of demonstrations as well as political and social disorder could occur
under extended lockdown and increasing frustration towards the government
(International Crisis Group, 2020).
COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the
opportunity of bettering existing democracy and human rights institutions and
mechanisms. However, the evidence demonstrates that leaders in both
non-democratic and democratic countries could encroach freedom and other
basic rights of their citizens through securitizing COVID-19, especially
through targeting some minority groups or political dissents and critics.
Therefore, in addition to continuously reflecting on the warlike propaganda
combating COVID-19 as well as their hidden political agenda, this article
reaffirms  the importance of the guidelines of UN Human Rights Office of
the Higher Commissioner: non-discrimination, legality, necessity, and
proportionality (UNCHR, 2020). Any emergency measures need to follow the
guidelines in order to put human rights upfront and in the center of policies
at all time (Baysa-Barredo, 2020). Despite the various
challenges brought upon by securitization of COVID-19, the crisis highlights
the need to reformulate and innovate the existing democratic and human rights
institutions and mechanisms.
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Baysa-Barredo, J. M. (2020).
Problematizing the Securitization of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia:
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BBC. (2020). “Li Wenliang: Coronavirus kills Chinese
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