How Authoritarians Are Exploiting the COVID-19 Crisis to Grab Power

Freedom Of Speech

People wearing masks, attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, February 7, 2020.
People wearing masks, attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, February7, 2020.© 2020 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Published in:The New York Review of Books

Author image

Kenneth Roth

Executive Director

For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power. Censorship in China and elsewhere has fed the pandemic, helping to turn a potentially containable threat into a global calamity. The health crisis will inevitably subside, but autocratic governments’ dangerous expansion of power may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies.

In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on free access to timely, accurate information. The Chinese government illustrated the disastrous consequence of ignoring that reality. When doctors in Wuhan tried to sound the alarm in December about the new coronavirus, authorities silenced and reprimanded them. The failure to heed their warnings gave COVID-19 a devastating three-week head…

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