The Pandemic Was Also Bad News For The World's Autocrats

For strongman leaders like Putin and Bolsonaro, the health crisis looked like a natural opening for greater top-down control — at least on paper.

Putin in Moscow on March 27
Putin in Moscow on March 27
Jacques Hubert-Rodier


PARIS — "Shoot "em dead." That was Rodrigo Duterte's startling take on how to deal with people who might be tempted to resist his country's lockdown orders.

For the Philippine president, the pandemic was an opening to tighten his grip on power and terrorize his people even more. And he wasn't alone. For Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Bolsonaro and other "strong men" in power, the crisis seemed like a bright opportunity to expand their authoritarian and megalomaniacal excesses.

Increased population controls? The suspension of basic freedoms, including free movement? With COVID-19, it's all justified.

And yet, as it turns out, the health crisis hasn't actually been that favorable to those who dream of unfettered power and the submission of society to their will. Instead, this unprecedented crisis has rightly shown the internal weaknesses of authoritarian regimes, almost all of which have struggled to meet the basic demands of their citizens and avoid sinking into international isolation.

It's a complex equation, in other words. But ultimately, the power gained during the pandemic was minimal — even for President "Digong," as Duterte is sometimes called.

Putin has never looked so weak.

Take, for example, the case of China, where the virus first appeared. President Xi Jinping is widely seen as the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. But his rise predates the pandemic by a number of years, and if anything, the health crisis has actually hurt him by tarnishing the image of China, which is accused of covering up the scale of the epidemic in its early stages and not being transparent about the numbers of confirmed cases and fatalities.

The pandemic has been an even bigger blow for the regime of Russia's Vladimir Putin, who has never looked so weak. "He looks like a sick old wolf," political scientist Alexander Kynev writes in the Moscow Times. Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, says that "things did not go as planned" for the Russian president. Indeed, Putin's grand plan to organize a referendum allowing him to remain in power until 2036 had to be suspended under the double shock of the collapse of oil prices and the health crisis.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling as well. The Turkish president has already been in office for 17 years, and his gradual accumulation of extensive powers began long before the health crisis. Last year, however, he experienced a major setback when his Justice and Development Party lost control of the municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul. The country is hurting financially as well, and the COVID-19 crisis is only adding to those woes. As a result, the country's central bank has had to triple its exchange agreement with Qatar, expanding from $5 billion in 2018 to $15 billion in order to cope with the collapse of its foreign exchange reserves.

For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who invented the concept of "illiberal democracy," the health crisis was the perfect pretext: On March 30, just as the pandemic was exploding in Europe, he granted himself special powers to govern by decree. Later, however, pressure from the European Union forced Orban to take a cautious step backwards by putting a time limit on those special powers.


Drivers protest the first day of nationwide coronavirus quarantine measures in Manila Photo: Joseph Dacalanio

Across the ocean, another strong-man leader, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, is faring far worse. His management of the coronavirus outbreak proved catastrophic and created a governmental crisis marked by the resignation of his health minister after just four weeks in office. The previous minister of health was fired by Bolsonaro following a dispute over the severity of the virus.

Looking toward the post-pandemic period, it's clear that none of today's authoritarian leaders — hampered as they may be the situation — will let go of their power. On the contrary, there will be a strong temptation for them to strengthen the surveillance of their population by monitoring displacement or by further tightening their control over the media and the judiciary.

Will the leaders of today's democracies be up to the task, and not fall into the trap of authoritarian regimes.

Paradoxically, however, democracies have become more resilient. In France, as well as in Italy and Spain, the management of the health crisis has been chaotic. And yet, it aso triggered a strong demand for a more protective state. This is a movement without precedent since the 1980s, when the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of neoliberalism.

After World War II, democratic powers were able to implement genuine social protections, including health care. The question is whether the leaders of today's democracies will be up to the task and will not fall into the trap of authoritarian regimes, as appears to be the case in the United States, where President Donald Trump has engaged in dangerous boasting and renewed threats to justice and the media.

There, the health crisis has only deepened divisions between supporters the president and his opponents. This is an example for European countries not to follow. Democracy remains the worst of all systems, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying. It remains a fragile political system.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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