The Thorn in Tyranny’s Side Goes Virtual by Patrick Beliard (A'21)

by tuftsigl
Apr 28

There is virtually no part of the world that has not been gravely affected by the COVID19 pandemic. Democracies and tyrannies alike have suffered the consequences of a health crisis – with significant political, social, and economic impacts –  of proportions never seen before. Although this situation has given birth to many events that attest to the beauty of human empathy and cooperation, it is also seen by many to be an opportunity for dictators and totalitarians to consolidate their power by cracking down on civil liberties in the name of public health. From China to Uganda, from Iran to Venezuela, the world has seen an increase in state censorship, disinformation, surveillance, and abrogation of civil liberties.

As a response to this, human rights activists from around the world partnered with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) to bring about the first ever COVIDCON—a conference that brought together experts, journalists, and people in the field to discuss how tyrannies and authoritarian governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to consolidate power. According to the HRF, this is the first conference of its kind—one where people from around the world can confer online to discuss the great challenges that surge as a cause of the interaction between tyranny and pandemic. The event lasted two days (April 13th and 14th), and it featured reporters (such as Frances Hui and Masih Alinejad), scholars (including Péter Krekó and Anne Applebaum), activists (Rania Aziz and Evan Mawawire), and even dissent artists like Ai Weiwei. Below are just a few highlights of all the panels, as well as an analysis of the main takeaways of the event.

The conference started off at the inception of the crisis, China. The first portion dedicated itself to unraveling how tyranny in China led to the creation of an epidemic out of its control. New reports continue to elucidate the way in which the CCP attempted to ignore the red flags raised by doctors in Wuhan by silencing them and erasing evidence of an epidemic. Whistleblowers such as Dr. Wenliang and Dr. Fen, who knew about the virus early on, were heavily admonished for spreading what the government called rumors and fear mongering. Furthermore, local authorities made an effort to hide the gravity of the situation by keeping the NHC’s research teams in the dark about COVID-19’s characteristics. This was all done in an effort to appease Hubei’s provincial leaders and the CCP, given that Wuhan was going to be hosting numerous high-level officials for a conference on the Hubei province’s state of affairs in late January.  Experts dissected how this wasted precious time that could have contributed to the mitigation of the virus.

This was followed by an analysis of how tenuous democracies are faring handling the virus vis à vis dictatorships. Axios Reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian remarked how this crisis has led to two noteworthy phenomena: first, she discussed how the pandemic has led states that were already backsliding from democracy to increase their moves to authoritarianism, speeding up what would have normally taken five years to unravel. Her second point focused on how this pandemic has increased cooperation among authoritarian regimes, such as Cuba, China, and Venezuela. In addition, she mentioned how authoritarian moments are also present in democracies. In what could be a worrisome circumvention of privacy laws, places such as the EU and South Korea have greatly relaxed their cellphone tracking and camera surveillance policies to trace the whereabouts of coronavirus patients. In the US, the President is in the process of installing seven new inspectors general.  Although the White House has implied that these actions are designed to increase public health effectivity, some experts say that the Trump administration is using the pandemic as a façade to purge the administration of officials who were involved in the Russia report scandal. This very act is what concerns journalists, considering that it further proves Trump’s affinity towards surrounding himself with people loyal to him rather than to the office.

The panel concluded that these authoritarian tendencies should be closely surveilled to differ between safety measures and democratic backsliding. This was followed by recommendations on how to balance privacy and civil rights with public health policies. Lastly, the first day wrapped up with an interview with Ai Weiwei, a Chinese creative dissent activist who uses his art as a means to criticize the CCP’s ideology. This interview, along with the rest of the second session panels, continued to discuss, analyze, and criticize the Chinese government’s reaction to the virus from social, political, and economic perspectives.

The first session of the second day continued to discuss the global human rights backlash triggered by the pandemic. Concerning authoritarian consolidation of power, Hungarian academic and free speech advocate Péter Kréko talked about the latest bill passed by Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s parliamentarian majority, where the party declared an indefinite state of emergency that included ceasing all elections, rallies, and other events that might work against the prime minister. Furthermore, the law continued to erode division of powers in Hungary by giving Orban an unbalanced amount of power over government.

Hungary is not unique in its problems—the panel titled Authoritarianism and Public Health in Times of Pandemic brought together activists from Cambodia, Venezuela, and Kenya to discuss the authoritarian actions that are not in international headlines. For example, they talked about Uganda, where minority groups such as the lgbtq+ community are being targeted by emergency directives that have not been democratically ratified. They also talked about the worrisome trend of the military mixing with civilian police in order to enact public health measures. This militarization of basic security protocol has led to an increase in violence in places like Kenya, where the first week of the lockdown saw more deaths from police brutality as a result of enforcing quarantine than from coronavirus itself.

After having discussed abuses of power around the world, the second half of the day was dedicated to understanding what human rights activists are doing to combat authoritarianism. People such as Zimbabwean activist and Pastor Evan Mawarire discussed the many techniques they are employing in order to keep their social movements alive. The panels discussed the importance of digital resources, such as social media and WhatsApp, to spread information about human rights abuses, coordinate virtual events that connect everyone, and raise global awareness on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Although the event was brief, the points made were plentiful and poignant. There are still many unanswered questions as to how to navigate these situations. In all likelihood, we will not know whether these authoritarian moments will lead to a global retreat of civil liberties and human rights. Only time is capable of giving us the perspective to understand how this affects people’s daily freedoms. Activists, such as the ones who participated in this event, recognize that the time to act is now. They are developing new and creative ways of protesting and expressing their opinions, even at a time of utmost difficulty. These activists are the ones who stand at the vanguard of human rights defense all around the world, and even though the authoritarian waves are many, they are and will continue to be the thorn in tyranny’s side.


Yang, Dali L. Wuhan officials tried to cover up covid-19 — and sent it careening outward, Monkey Cage: The Washington Post. Published on March 10th, 2020. Read on April 27th, 2020. Accessed through: