On February 27, in the midst of the now-growing worldwide coronavirus outbreak, Chinese human rights activist Yaqiu Wang pointed out a tragedy: “No matter how stretched government resources are, silencing criticism will always be the Communist Party’s number one priority.”
She was referring to the fact that yet another citizen journalist, Li Zehua, had just been arrested in China for reporting on coronavirus. But her comment is timeless, a core observation of how authoritarian systems operate.
Alex Gladstein (@gladstein) is the chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting civil liberties inside authoritarian societies.
During the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet regime tried to cover up the calamitous effects of the nuclear meltdown. Worse, the series of events that triggered the actual explosion have been attributed to human error—citizens who had placed their loyalty to the Communist Party above their commitment to the public good. Then, as now, silencing criticism is the number one goal of dictators during times of crisis.
As a new study from The Economist reveals, dictatorships are bad for public health. The report reviews historical data from the International Disaster Database, covering 40 years of impact from diseases ranging from smallpox to Zika to Ebola. Democracies, their analysis concludes, are “better than other forms of governments at containing and treating outbreaks … [experiencing] lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.”
Even when dictatorships report seemingly good numbers on health, the data should be scrutinized. Because authoritarian rulers do not permit a free press or watchdog organizations, it’s nearly impossible to verify socioeconomic statistics originating from closed societies. Entities like Unesco gather data for reports that the United Nations, World Bank, and other influential organizations produce. In the case of a dictatorship like Cuba, the regime gives health numbers directly to the data collectors, and no independent double-checking is possible. This helps explain why, despite extensive media coverage of Cuba’s “great” health care statistics, the country experienced a cholera outbreak just a few years ago.
At first glance, highly centralized dictatorships may seem better equipped to mobilize quickly during an epidemic, since they simply don’t respect the rights or wishes of citizens in their plans. One could view the Chinese Communist Party’s enormous amount of new construction and requisition in their race to build more hospitals, more beds, and more testing facilities as a positive thing. But because of the climate of fear they create in order to survive, tyrannies end up flustering innovation and cooperation, and ultimately treat even well-intentioned criticism as a crime against the state.
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In China, Dr. Li Wenliang warned his fellow colleagues in Wuhan about the massive potential dangers of coronavirus back in late December. Instead of listening to him, authorities accused him of “severely disturbing the social order.” Eventually, he was infected and killed by the virus. He became a national hero—and a rare rallying point for Chinese netizens to brazenly voice dissent online.
It has become clear that there are many, many doctors and medical professionals like Dr. Li who tried to tell the truth. According to a now-censored article from Caixin, a Wuhan hospital had sent a virus sample to the authorities on December 24. The sample was sequenced three days later, but on January 1, an official ordered it destroyed, and initiated a coverup. A week later, a team of doctors visited Wuhan, but weren’t allowed to see any of this previous evidence, preventing them from properly diagnosing the rapidly changing situation.
Over the past two months, Chinese doctors, journalists, and citizens reporting the truth have been hunted down and silenced, or have disappeared. Proper public health measures that could have been taken were not, out of fear of displeasing the Communist Party. Today, officials are reporting around 2,900 deaths. But in a reality where entire families are dying and where prisons are now reporting outbreaks, that number seems like a certain underestimation and the product of a paranoid regime.
Another major hotspot for coronavirus is in Iran, where the dictatorship has also acted to silence discussion and reporting around the disease. At first, the country’s rulers denied that coronavirus was a threat. But now, as top members of the government and religious establishment have begun to contract and even die from the disease, the regime is taking major public steps and canceling Friday prayers, sporting games, and even schools for several weeks.
In a real-life tragicomedy, a top Iranian health official gave a televised speech to say that the government had control of the situation, all while appearing sick. It was later revealed that he had been infected with coronavirus. Slowly, videos have leaked from whistle-blowers revealing outbreaks and unreported death tolls in hospitals. As of March 1, the regime’s Health Ministry says 54 people have died. Independent sources, meanwhile, have told the BBC that at least 210 people have died. The regime has accused the BBC of spreading fake news. Experts say that more than 2,000 people might be infected in the city of Qom alone. But religious authorities, not wanting to appear weak, are still urging people to visit the holy city for spiritual healing and have not locked the area down.
As in China, it’s clear the Iranian authorities are still focusing on crushing dissent, even as a public health crisis spins out of control. This week, the regime issued death sentences for three more people who were originally detained during pro-democracy protests at the end of last year. And on Sunday, they announced that a “300,000-person task force” would go home to home across the nation to eliminate the disease. It seems likely that this initiative will become mixed with an effort to silence critics.
Our greatest concerns should be reserved for the harshest scenarios. After reports emerged of outbreaks in Chinese jails, many began to worry about conditions in the prison camps in Xinjiang, where it is estimated that more than 1 million Muslim-minority Uighurs are incarcerated. A possibly even worse situation is in North Korea, where hundreds of thousands are in gulags.
Earlier this month, The Daily NK—a newspaper that sources information from inside North Korea—reported that there had been a string of deaths from a flulike disease in towns bordering China. It also reported that the North Korean military was smuggling in face masks, and that the regime’s ration system was grinding to a halt.
In the Middle East, as the clash between Turkey and Syria develops into a hot war, Syrian refugees have little to no medical support in the grim but very possible case that the virus spreads to them. And in Venezuela, President Maduro has accused the US of creating coronavirus as a weapon against China and threatened journalists reporting information about the disease—a scary thought given the multimillion-person refugee crisis on the country’s borders.
The Indian Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen famously wrote that no famine had ever occurred in a democracy. Open societies allow for a free flow of information and independent inquiry and investigative journalism, and these forces are equally effective at warning and spreading word about emergency lack of food as they are at alerting about outbreaks.
One of the lessons of coronavirus should be that authoritarian systems are an increasingly significant threat to our world. As Iran analyst and human rights lawyer Gissou Nia recently said, “The next time someone tries to downplay the abuses of a dictatorship or say ‘it’s none of our business,’ please point them to the handling of Covid-19. We are all interconnected and how states handle their ‘internal’ affairs affects us all.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” has never rang more true.
One way that dictatorships may try to deal with epidemics moving forward is to ramp up their already considerable technological surveillance of citizens. Even now, the Chinese government is gathering huge amounts of information about its population, all in the name of public health. The regime is using its vast network of hundreds of millions of cameras, information streams from citizen phones, and facial recognition software to try and more closely map events in real time.
For example, citizens are being asked to put their national ID numbers into new apps that can track their location. The AI company Sensetime is marketing to the government biometric and video software that can apparently identify individuals with high temperatures, or individuals who aren’t wearing masks. According to a Bloomberg report, the government and major telecoms corporations are working together to flag anyone who has been in Hubei province, and marking people who buy coronavirus-related medicine at the point of purchase. Companies are releasing hundreds of requests to the regime on individual user location. China Telecom has even created a color-coded score to identify citizens based on their risk, while WeChat has in some cases enabled users to see if they are near any confirmed infections.
One can admit the appeal of harnessing more social data in times of crisis. But it’s only fair to ask: will regimes relinquish these new abilities once the virus fades? Looking back at the aggressive growth of the Chinese security state after the 2008 Olympics, the answer appears to be no. Even in democracies, given the Patriot Act’s permanent legacy of increased surveillance and restrictions on civil liberties and privacy, citizens should be wary of new public health protocols that rely on the mass collection of information.
Li Zehua, the citizen journalist who has gone missing in Wuhan after reporting on the spread of the disease, made one last recording before live-streaming his own arrest. It was a note for the regime thugs he knew would be arriving any moment to take him away. In it, he explains why he decided to leave his government job at CCTV to report on the truth:
“I really understand you guys outside the door. I understand the mission you’ve been given. But I also sympathize with you, because when you support, without conditions and without reason, such a cruel order, the day will come when the same cruel order falls on your own heads. OK, that’s it. I’m ready to open the door.”
In closed societies, regimes target and punish the bravest citizens, instead of allowing them to lead and help with public health crises. These creative and innovative individuals are the white blood cells of our global immune system, identifying risks, sharing information about threats, and keeping us strong and healthy. Without them, we all need to fear for the worst.
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