Over the past week the clamour for a total shutdown of all public life has become so deafening across much of Europe that governments which had been erstwhile immune to enforcing what have become known as lockdowns finally caved in.
In emerging Europe, in unison the general public, journalists, analysts and media commentators have welcomed the declaration of states of emergency, the closure of borders and called for the army to patrol the streets. In some cases they have made public the names of those infected with, or suspected of having, the coronavirus.
It’s almost as if the freedoms won 30 years ago – freedom from the militarisation of public life, freedom to travel and the naming and shaming of enemies of the people – can somehow be switched on and off at the touch of a button.
In functioning democracies, perhaps they can: we will find out in due course. In less successful democracies it could well be that the freedoms so willingly, almost joyfully handed over today might be lost for quite some time.
In Moldova, where heavily-armed soldiers now patrol the streets of towns and cities, TV presenters have been told to refrain from expressing their opinions should they fail to conform with the official narrative regarding the virus.
In Azerbaijan, one of the first actions of the government in response to the coronavirus outbreak was to raid the offices of the opposition D18 movement.
On March 8, Azerbaijani journalist Tezekhan Mirelemli started live broadcasting from D18’s Baku office as police officers ordered the office closed, saying that the activists could not “gather en masse” due to fears of spreading the coronavirus. There were only four people in the office at the time.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seems to be using the arrival of the coronavirus as a great opportunity to advance his project of weakening the checks and balances on his power.
A bill currently in Hungary’s parliament would allow Orbán’s government to rule by decree under a state of emergency that could be extended indefinitely, without recourse to parliament.
It would also introduce prison terms of up to five years for anyone found guilty of spreading false information that caused public alarm or hampered efforts to contain the pandemic, and up to eight years for breaking isolation or quarantine rules.
On March 23, the bill failed to attract the required four-fifths of deputies needed to pass, but is expected to return to parliament next week, when a two-thirds majority will be enough to turn it into law.
“While the government wants everyone’s cooperation in this time of crisis, it is attempting to approve a bill that would lock out not only opposition MPs but the entire parliament from decision making, depriving the country of any kind of parliamentary oversight,” says Anna Donath, a Hungarian MEP for the opposition Momentum party.
In neighbouring Romania, the appearance of the army on the streets of the capital Bucharest on March 25 was cheered by most of the city’s residents.
Now, while albeit somewhat dithering and ineffective, Romania’s current Liberal government is broadly benevolent, and the state of emergency declared by the country’s president Klaus Iohannis on March 11 spares it from the threat of facing any no-confidence votes, despite not having a majority in parliament.
I can’t help wondering however if Romanians would have been similarly happy to see the army on the streets if the authoritarian, populist PSD – kicked out of office late last year – were still at the controls?
It is worth remembering that in August 2018, Romanian gendarmes brutally put down a peaceful anti-PSD protest, injuring hundreds. Those same gendarmes, along with the army and regular police (often said to be close to the PSD) are now responsible for ensuring order and that the lockdown instituted on March 24 is respected.
Should the health of Mr Iohannis prevent him from carrying out his duties (world leaders are not immune to coronavirus), the speaker of the country’s senate, Titus Corlățean – a PSD stalwart – would take over.
It is not a thrilling prospect.
The world’s response to the threat posed by Covid-19 is unprecedented. I increasingly fear however that the impact of the unparalleled emergency measures countries around the globe are now taking are likely to be far more wide-reaching, and long-term, than the coronavirus itself.
History teaches us that once armies have been deployed – for whatever, seemingly benevolent reason – it can often be difficult to persuade them to return to their barracks. This will hopefully not be the case once the coronavirus has been eradicated.
Nevertheless, we should be careful what we wish for.
Photo: Inquam Photos / Octav Ganea