This photo taken on March 27, 2020, shows prison inmates in cramped conditions in the crowded courtyard of the Quezon City jail in Manila. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

Legislation handing governments sweeping powers. Journalists threatened with jail time for their reporting. Curfew breakers locked up in dog cages. Whistleblowing medical staff being “disappeared.” This is the darker side to the regional response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Asia. 

In several countries across the Asia-Pacific region, authorities have used the pandemic as a pretext to extend their own powers, to target and undermine critics, or to suppress information about the true extent of the virus’s spread, potentially putting thousands of lives at risk. 

Although the pandemic originated in China, cases in the Asia-Pacific region have so far actually remained relatively low. Apart from China, India and South Korea, no country has reported more than 5,000 cases, while several Asian states have been praised for their responses. In South Korea and Taiwan, for example, authorities moved swiftly and efficiently to tackle the virus, through mass testing, contact tracing, and a strict triage system to protect health workers.

But in some Asian states, authorities appear to have deliberately kept crucial information about the virus’s spread from the public. China is the most high-profile example, where questions continue to be asked about the extent of the authorities’ initial cover-up.

Doctors who first identified the new virus were silenced by the police. When law professor Xu Zhangrun published an essay titled “When Fury Overcomes Fear,” condemning the Chinese government’s suppression of factual information, his online accounts were suspended and he was put under house arrest. The government has since launched a public relations blitz to deflect blame from itself, including through unfounded conspiracy theories that the virus was brought into China by the US military.  

In Japan, the number of cases began to go up rapidly only after the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games was announced, raising suspicion that the government previously had deliberately avoided widespread testing to try to save the Games for this year. Japan said, to the contrary, that its testing policy had been chosen as a means to avoid overburdening the health-care system. With case numbers rising, the country now has moved to the more typical formula of emphasizing all three of the key policy components: testing, tracing and treatment.

The most extreme example is, not surprisingly, North Korea, where authorities have yet to report a single case. Although the Hermit Kingdom sealed its borders with China back in January, experts say it is highly likely the virus has entered the country, and has warned of a public health crisis unless authorities increase testing. News reports suggest the authorities have now recognized that they face a strong challenge from the virus and have begun moving to confront it.

In other countries, a delayed or confused response by the authorities has put lives at risk, in particular those of the poorest and most disadvantaged. Even as the virus was spreading across Southeast Asia, Myanmar refused to acknowledge the presence of the virus until March 24. A government spokesman claimed that the superior “lifestyle and diet” of people in Myanmar would keep the outbreak at bay. 

The Indonesian government was similarly slow to react – the country’s death rate is now almost twice the global average. 

In India, a hastily ordered lockdown has hit marginalized communities the hardest as access to food and livelihood has been cut off, while tens of thousands of migrant workers have been left stranded. There are also an alarming number of reports of police heavy-handedness in enforcing the lockdown.

Across large parts of Asia, the Covid-19 outbreak has also accelerated an already worrying trend where authorities clamp down on free speech. Rights groups have raised such concerns about Bangladesh, where tens of people have been arrested for “spreading rumors,” under a draconian Digital Security Act.

The Philippine government has taken an extremely punitive approach to curfew breakers, more than 17,000 of whom have already been arrested. Media images show people, including children, forced to sit for hours in the sun, confined to dog cages, or even locked in coffins. On April 2, President Rodrigo Duterte – who has led a brutal anti-drugs campaign in which thousands of people have been extrajudicially executed – ordered police and military to shoot dead curfew violators.

Other governments used the crisis as a pretext to hand themselves more power or carry out political vendettas. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party has orchestrated flimsily justified arrests of dozens of people who have spread information about the virus, including at least four members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

In Myanmar, a new commission that includes military officials, but few members of the civilian government, has been given sweeping powers to punish those who spread “fake news.” Analysts have warned that the Covid-19 crisis is giving rise to a new “military-dominant order” that will be hard to upend even after the crisis is over.

Draconian measures cannot stop the spread of this virus, which is moving at a speed unmatched by any countermeasures we take. The Covid-19 pandemic is as much a crisis of human rights as one of public health. States need to respond to the health crisis with science-based approaches and transparency in the best interest of everyone – in particular the most vulnerable. 

If we are not careful, another dangerous ailment is lurking around the corner – the long-term damage to democratic values.  

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Binaifer Nowrojee

Binaifer Nowrojee is the regional director for Asia Pacific, responsible for the strategic direction, operational support, and advocacy for the Open Society Foundations’ work in Asia. A long-standing human rights advocate, Nowrojee previously worked as legal counsel with Human Rights Watch and as a staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She holds a JD from Columbia Law School and an LLM degree from Harvard Law School.