COVID-19 and Rise of State Control Globally

Dr. Shreya Upadhyay
June 14, 2020


The Covid-19 pandemic has mandated leaders around the world to bring calm and order. People are, in fact, looking up to governments for swift and robust responses. A ‘rally around the flag’ approach can be seen worldwide. Governments around the world are enacting stringent laws, using technology to track cases, boosting surveillance, and introducing penal actions to enforce the rules of containment and social distancing. The relevance of boundaries has strengthened. National boundaries and national rules are being seen as principal barriers to the spread of the disease. This article looks at how governments and leaders around the world have become stronger with the looming crisis. 

The outbreak has breathed into life laws in various countries that give authorities extraordinary powers to combat a contagious disease. In India, several acts such as the National Disaster Management Act, The colonial Epidemic Diseases Act, Essential Services Maintenance Act 1968, the Essential Commodities Act have been invoked. These acts have empowered the government to enforce a lockdown, screening passengers at public places, and have empowered officials to enter into any house and examine a suspected sick person. 

Leaders in several other countries have been using the situation to increase their mandate. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban granted himself the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. This was seen as an emergency response to the pandemic and involved no consultation with other lawmakers. Critics have dubbed this as a move to mitigate domestic criticism. Similarly, in Cambodia, the national assembly passed a state of emergency law granting autocratic leader, Hun Sen, new powers. It allowed unlimited surveillance as well as controlling the press and social media. It also involved restricting the freedom of movement and assembly, seize private property, and enforce quarantines. Singapore has instituted a prison sentence for anyone found violating “social distancing” protocols. The United Kingdom has introduced “emergency powers” but has not declared a state of emergency. These powers must be renewed by parliament after six months and will expire in full after two years. Other European states such as Italy and Spain have not used the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) mechanism. However, they have declared states of emergency in accordance with their constitutional provisions. Many of the countries have imposed time limits on these legislations. Arguably, the nation-states are often reluctant to give away the powers they would have attained even after a public emergency crisis ends. Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government still uses laws like the PATRIOT Act and many of the surveillance technologies it developed in the immediate wake.

Technology for Solution or Surveillance 

In the fight against coronavirus, it is technology that has guided the light but also threatened to encroach upon privacy. On the one hand, this is the era of solutionism, a description of the idea that every social problem has a technological fix. Big data and artificial intelligence are being used to monitor and observe people fight COVID-19. A few examples in this regard are a Polish app that requires COVID-19 patients to regularly take selfies to prove they are indoors or China’s color-coded smartphone health rating program. The government is taking the help of companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, etc. in this regard. India has been using tech solutions in food delivery, medical consultation, education, as well as tracking people. Gathering of smartphone location data (to track the movement of people) is becoming one of the most common forms of surveillance to fight the pandemic. Governments are using these to identify the movement of infected people and to monitor lockdowns, quarantines, etc. The Indian government has also launched the Aarogya Setu app, similar to Singapore’s Trace Together for contact-tracing. In France, “mobile identification strategy” was used for anyone who has been in contact with infected people. Drones were deployed to ensure the city’s inhabitants respect confinement rules. In Israel, police have been given powers to monitor those supposed to be in isolation. Internal security service ‘Shin Bet’ was authorized to track an infected person’s mobile phone data going back for two weeks. There might be stricter laws restricting government or civilians in democracies from using unrestricted modes of surveillance. However, given the current situation, surveillance has become a worldwide phenomenon across the globe. Such a large scale of data collection/ use of technology was not seen during epidemics such as SARS or Influenza. In the United States and Europe, citizens are concerned about their privacy in terms of data collection. However, today health systems and government bodies are making use of this data in tracing the pandemic. Excessive use of technology and surveillance has also raised questions about the violation of citizens’ privacy in several Asian counties. 

Big data is being used for predictive modeling of how the disease moves from one city to another due to commuting patterns. Facebook created a disease mapping tool that tracks the spread of disease by aggregating user travel patterns. Contract tracing is also being used to identify people that an infected person has been around. This reveals potential outbreak hot spots, offers some idea of where the virus may spread next, and, more importantly, warns officials whom to contact next and potentially isolate if they become symptomatic. These also help in identifying the number of people complying with requests or orders of staying home. Often big data in several countries do not rely on personally identifiable data or use anonymized data. However, countries such as China, South Korea, or Taiwan use smartphone location readings to trace the contacts of individuals who have tested positive or to enforce quarantine orders. As long as the data is properly anonymized, this remains legal. However, many western democratic countries might be queasy to adopt these measures because citizens must be individually identified and because the measures involve combining data normally collected for different and unrelated purposes. There are also fears that the situation could be used by non-state actors to collect data. In Iran, a message claiming to be from the Ministry of Health asked people to install and use software to determine if they have coronavirus. It included a link to download the app from an Iranian app store. It was later discovered that since no app/software could tell the same, it was an attempt to collect personal data of citizens allegedly for surveillance. 

What could be the problem following the pandemic?

Critics argue that it might be hard for the government to scale down the use of surveillance, after the pandemic. Questions are being raised on when the government will stop its collection of data. Another question is that “Will the collected data be deleted ever. If yes, by when?” The European Data Protection Board has stated clearly that processing personal data by the authorities in command is permissible until the duration of an emergency. Data subjects need to be informed about the main features of the processing activities that are being carried out. Adequate security measures and confidentiality policies need to be in place. Anonymous use of mobile location data is permissible; however, the use of personally identifiable mobile location data should be avoided if possible, and if used, must be subject to appropriate safeguards. However, not all countries in the world are bound to follow these principles. These clash with people’s expectations of privacy. Data collected for one purpose can later be used for another. Some privacy scholars question whether enhanced surveillance in the name of fighting the disease can be dialed back once the danger has passed. Arguably, government surveillance programs, even in democracies like the United States, have suffered a large number of abuses.


Crises are a test for self-government. Nation-states moving towards authoritarianism use the tools of force, opacity, and fear to control populations. Democracies are bound by the rule of law, open sharing of information and consent. Democratic systems are not built to hide and obscure serious information from the public for weeks and to silence doctors who raise the alarm. However, there is a view that authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states are better able to manage the crises; there can be a risk to a democratic way of life. The trend is disturbing even as average democracy global score is on a declining trend. The pandemic has seen an increasing control on the movement of the population worldwide– democracy and autocratic governments alike. Many of these – lockdowns, quarantines, and border controls have been accepted, as necessary. However, violence, a crackdown on information, arrests of journalists, clamping down on whistle-blowers, and wiretapping conversations is a different game altogether. While the restriction on movement is the need of the hour, the longer they remain, they are more likely to disrupt the foundations of free, liberal societies. There are examples of Iran that, despite being a secretive, authoritarian regime failed in managing this crisis, and nations like South Korea and Germany who have not given up democratic values and used sophisticated high tech and advanced healthcare for the benefit of the population. Political science lectures are filled with scenarios regarding individual rights versus the common good. With the citizens of the world bracing the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea is to marry privacy and civil liberties with public health safeguards. The solution lies in using science and technology but maintaining public trust and transparency. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that the threat of the disease could be used by authoritarian governments to amass power, and that technology can be used as a tool in that process. It also needs to be noted that measures introduced during emergencies cannot easily be dismantled.  

*** Dr. Shreya Upadhyay is currently Principal Analyst, India Bound, and is teaching at the Symbiosis University, Pune ***

This article is part of an ongoing KIIPS Debate on the subject. Views countering some of the arguments of this article can be found here.