How disasters can lead to a rise in authoritarianism 

A more dangerous kind of exploitation often triggers ‘disaster authoritarianism’, especially in countries where democracy is weak or fragile.

Published: 31st August 2020 07:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st August 2020 07:38 AM   |  A+A-

Hong Kong activist Nathan Law takes part in a protest during a meeting of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio

Hong Kong activist Nathan Law takes part in a protest during a meeting of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio in Rome (Photo | AP)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Canadian author Naomi Klein introduced the theory of ‘disaster capitalism’, in which neoliberal policies are pushed forward through the exploitation of disasters. A disaster, certainly, is an opportunity to exploit. A more dangerous kind of exploitation often triggers ‘disaster authoritarianism’, especially in countries where democracy is weak or fragile.

The anti-liberal Russian philosopher and political operative Alexandr Dugin, who is a leading promoter of Eurasianism, believes that the coronavirus is creating a post-globalist, illiberal and anti-democratic world of sloshed societies, and we have entered a multi-polar world where authoritarianism will set the tone. Normally, natural disasters are usually characterised as local-level events without major political consequences. However, one year ago, researchers from Durham University Business School, Deakin Business School and Monash School of Business, Malaysia, observed a link between natural disasters and oppressive governments.

The report, entitled ‘Storm Autocracies’, details how, after a major storm such as a hurricane, island nations begin to enact more authoritarian policies and become less democratic. Based on data during 1950-2009, which measured every single country’s ‘polity score’—an international analysis tool that evaluates the strength of a country’s democratic system in a 21-point scale split into a three-part categorisation of ‘autocracies’ (-10 to -6), ‘anocracies’ (-5 to +5) and ‘democracies’ (+6 to +10)—the researchers found that storms deteriorate democratic conditions in island countries by 3.46% in the following year and 10.1% over the subsequent five years.

Additionally, these governments increase their level of political oppression by around 2.5% per year following storm-related disasters. The prolonged authoritarian regimes in countries such as Haiti, Fiji and the Philippines are explained by frequent severe storm events. They dubbed these countries ‘storm autocracies’. Frequent storms offer more opportunities to the governments in allocating relief assistance than they generally do in exchange for restricting their citizens’ democratic rights. The ultimate outcome turns out to be authoritarian populism.

During the Covid-19 pandemic,  different countries exhibited authoritarian behaviour such as detaining journalists, opposition activists, healthcare workers and anyone else who dared to criticise the official response to the virus. Egypt, for example, even expelled a Guardian correspondent and ‘warned’ a New York Times journalist after they questioned government figures on the number of coronavirus cases. Thailand instructed journalists to report on government press conferences only and not to interview medical personnel.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has awarded himself emergency powers to silence ‘fake’ news. Duterte threatened martial law and instructed security services to ‘shoot dead’ those breaking curfew. Hungarian parliament, amid both domestic and international resistance and criticism, passed a bill giving the nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping emergency powers that enable him to rule by decree indefinitely, suspend the existing laws, and imprison for up to five years any journalist who disseminates news that is deemed ‘false’. In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro has arrested journalists and activists who question the country’s preparedness for Covid-19.

The Turkish government has detained hundreds of people for “provocative and abusive” social media posts. Authoritarianism has diverse faces, though. While China seemed eager to take control of Hong Kong amid the pandemic, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on to solidify his political base—the religious conservatives and Turkish nationalists—by converting the Hagia Sophia museum to Ayasofya mosque. And the Russian government successfully paved the way for constitutional amendments that allows Vladimir Putin to rule the country until 2036!

What about countries like the US? 2001 Economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz also believed that authoritarian figures like Trump would take advantage of Covid-19. However, that was never so easy. Although Trump downplayed the coronavirus crisis by terming it a ‘hoax’ and took advantage of the pandemic to suspend the US payment to the WHO, for example, Covid-19 might have jeopardised his re-election bid by quite an extent. A strong democratic foundation can certainly resist authoritarianism. While Trump, in his re-election bid, was eager to open up the economy as early in mid-April when the US only had slightly more than half a million Covid-19 cases, he was forced to retreat.

Interestingly, not only the rulers, even common people tend to subscribe to authoritarianism amid or after a disaster. In an article published in 2020 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers from Torino and Palermo in Italy analysed the relations between exposure to news describing a natural disaster and right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) among Italian adults, surveyed twice, before and after a severe earthquake that hit the Abruzzo—an Italian region—in 2009. The researchers observed that exposure to earthquake news led to an increase in RWA among people who had low authoritarian levels before the event, but not among those who had relatively high levels.

However, can a disaster like the Covid-19 pandemic ravage the democratic foundation of every country on this planet in the same way? Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman has said: “Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” A pandemic like Covid-19 is certainly a testing time for democratic foundations in different countries. It could wreak havoc on fragile democracies, while strong ones would certainly survive the tremor. Transparency and good governance would be renewed in liberal democracies.

Atanu  Biswas
Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata


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