Where All Roads Now Lead

It’s acknowledged by many now that the women who constitute only 7 percent of world leaders did a notably different and excellent job of preparing their countries for the coronavirus pandemic and of coping with it as the full force has hit.

From Finland to New Zealand, from Taiwan to Germany and the Caribbean, countries led by women acted early, tested thoroughly, locked down quickly, and have suffered far fewer deaths than their neighbors. (See last week’s blog, Seismic Messages, for details.) Ireland and South Korea join that group, although led by men. Unfortunately, however, the same can’t be said for countries led by their brothers.

This pandemic will slice through history like a scythe through a wheat field, leaving in its rippling wake major changes, as such events always do. The question is whether the leadership that follows in that wake will be the type I described last week (demonstrated by the women leaders and a few male leaders), or the opposite—even the deliberate, extreme opposite. This is a real threat and would be a form of species suicide.

Here is what that opposite has been doing in the age of the coronavirus.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban can now rule by absolute decree; his “emergency measures” are suspending existing laws, and have reserved sole power to end the emergency to Orban, whose government has moved to persecute journalists and members of the opposition. The new law will permanently limit freedom of expression and suspend all elections and referenda.

According to the group Reporters without Borders, the government of Turkmenistan has forbidden state-controlled media from writing or even uttering the word “coronavirus,” and has ordered the word removed from health brochures distributed at hospitals, schools, and workplaces.

Egypt’s strongman General Abdel Fattah el Sisi deployed chemical warfare troops in protective suits armed with disinfectant to the streets of Cairo, in a theatrical display of military muscle.

Vladimir Putin initially claimed that Russia had no cases of Covid-19, then blamed the rapidly escalating number of deaths on “jet-setting Russians who travel abroad,” and now is having to deal with violent public protests at his having proclaimed that all Covid-19 cases are totally under control.

Chile has stationed troops in all public squares, to discourage further protests against the government for having mismanaged the pandemic.

Bolivia has postponed elections without setting a new date certain.

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has closed the courts, conveniently delaying his own scheduled appearance to face criminal corruption charges. He’s also authorized Israel’s internal security agency to use cell-phone data developed for counterterrorism to track citizens disobeying isolation orders; such violators can now be punished with up to six months imprisonment.

Singapore’s health ministry has posted information online about every coronavirus patient—sometimes in great detail, with no regard for patients’ privacy rights.

The Philippine Congress has passed legislation giving President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers tantamount to dictatorship.

Thailand’s Prime Minister has assumed the authority to censor news media; subsequently, journalists have been harassed and sued for criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak.

The British Parliament—called “the mother of all parliaments” —rushed through a bill giving government ministers the power to detain and isolate people indefinitely, to ban public gatherings (including protests), and to shut down ports and airports–all with scant oversight. The bill’s additional draconian elements—like sweeping powers granted to border agents and police, leading to indefinite detention and hostile policies against immigrants—won the new law an unflattering nickname: “The Henry VIII Powers.”

This is, to say the least, not reassuring.

Look, my friends. It should be obvious that in such extraordinary times as these, extraordinary measures must be considered—including examining border closings, enforcing quarantines, and tracking infected people even at some risk of privacy violations. Many such actions are already protected by international law in such an emergency; most can be done with sensitivity; and all should be done under strict oversight.

But some governments are using the pandemic as a cover to seize new powers that have little or nothing to do with the outbreak. Furthermore, they’re doing so with few if any safeguards to ensure that this new authority won’t be abused.

Here in the United States, we will for the moment ignore Trump’s advice to substitute your morning glass of orange juice for a swig of bleach. Let’s focus instead on his dangerous, canny Attorney General Bill Barr. Barr has had the Justice Department request Congress for sweeping new powers, including a plan to eliminate legal protections for asylum-seekers and (insert here alert sirens please!) powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. Both Democrats and Republicans were so indignant that the department scaled back and submitted a more modest proposal. In the meantime, though, some individual governors are already acting abusively: Greg Abbott of Texas has blocked most abortions in the state during the pandemic, claiming that the procedure is “elective surgery” and can be “delayed.” Delayed?!

Rights groups know that governments absorb more power when citizens are distracted and historically, such distractions have certainly proved useful for the ascension of dictators. When fear is pumping adrenaline into people, they want and deserve real leadership—honest, thoughtful, empathetic, visionary, strong leadership. Instead, they often get leaders who are merely strongmen. Crises like this pandemic present a perfect excuse to seize power. This particular crisis happens to be organic, but such events are often manufactured specifically for just such a purpose. To wit, the infamous Reichstag Fire that helped precipitate the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.

Aspiring dictators never clarify time limits and end dates for emergency laws, although they keep assuring the populace that such laws are just temporary. What we know from painful experience, though, is that such laws tend to outlive the crisis—like the patently unconstitutional Patriot Act here in the United States, passed following the 9/11 attacks, but still in force as of this writing via patchwork legislation to keep it alive.

A reliable, thorough information source for keeping up with developments on this subject is the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which works in more than 100 countries around the globe to improve the legal environment for civil society, philanthropy, and public participation–and which also tracks new legislation and new decrees issued during the pandemic.

All of which brings us back to a red-alert priority: focusing on our own US elections this fall. They’re already seriously endangered by foreign interference, online hacking, faulty voting machines, lax procedures, byzantine complications at polling places, political dirty tricksters, massive mobilized voter suppression campaigns, and now the pandemic. We have got to understand that Trump may likely try to delay or even suspend the November presidential election—and the worse his own approval polls continue to look the more likely it is that he will try to do this, using as his justification public health safety (not that that’s seriously concerned him before).

That’s why the option of voting by mail is so crucial.

No one should have to choose between their life and their vote—although African-Americans have had to face that choice for centuries, and still do in many parts of this nation. Yes, we need early voting, extended voting, and election days declared as formal holidays so that no one gets their salary docked. And yes we need to explore vigilant digital voting and paper trails and yes yes easy, even same-day, registration. Yes yes yes we need all that but especially most of all right now we need safe, secure absentee voting.

There must be no excuse for postponing or suspending the presidential and other elections this fall. We can guarantee that by ensuring the option of an absentee ballot as a right and a reality in every state.

All roads—and all issues—now lead to this priority.

If you don’t know whether your state offers this option, you can contact the nonpartisan League of Women Voters online or by phone for that information. (Established after the passage of the 19th Amendment a century ago, the League was set up to inform new women voters about their rights and the voting process—but since then continues to do so for everyone.) If your state does not offer absentee voting/voting by mail, then I urge you to start agitating and organizing. The League can also tell you what the process in your state is for achieving such an option. In some states, such a change involves the state legislature weighing in; in others, an executive order from the governor is sufficient. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York just issued such an order, defining the change as necessitated by the pandemic. But time is short, and if you lack the absentee ballot option in your state, you need to get on it—fast.

Please don’t do it tomorrow. Do it yesterday. Do it when you stop reading this blog. Do it now.