Marco Rubio, Richard Gere among the 500 who warn democracy under threat due to coronavirus

More than 500 political and human rights leaders signed an open letter on Thursday expressing concern that the coronavirus pandemic could threaten democracy, as authoritarian leaders use the public health crisis to take sinister power attacks.

Signers included US Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida; actor Richard Gere; Nigerian author and Nobel Prize winner for literature Wole Soyinka; and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.

So far, the virus has killed nearly 500,000 people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and concerns have grown over opaque data collection from tracking apps to the endless emergency powers used by nations during the crisis.

A doctor examines a patient in the COVID-19 patient intensive care unit at the Szent Laszlo hospital in Budapest, Hungary, on April 22, 2020.Zoltan Balogh / MTI via AP file

“The COVID-19 pandemic threatens more than the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. It is also a political crisis that threatens the future of liberal democracy,” says the letter organized by the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit organization based in the United States. .

“It is not surprising that authoritarian regimes are using the crisis to silence critics and strengthen their political control.”

More than 70 democratic institutions such as the Carter Center and the Uyghur World Congress supported the letter entitled: “A call to defend democracy”, along with 13 Nobel laureates and 62 former heads of state.

“Parliaments are being marginalized, journalists are being arrested and harassed, scapegoats for minorities and the most vulnerable sectors of the population face alarming new dangers,” the letter continued.

In March, the Hungarian Parliament passed a bill giving extraordinary powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government during the pandemic, without setting an end date for its expiration.

The law was criticized by opposition parties along with international civic groups for not including an expiration date and for including measures against false information, which could be used by the government to silence independent media, critics warned.

In autocratic Turkmenistan, Reporters Without Borders, the international watchdog of press freedom, said in March that the country had banned journalists from using the word “coronavirus,” and that anyone wearing masks or talking about the virus could be Arrested by the police in civilian clothes.

President Donald Trump raised his eyebrows and shook lawmakers in April when he said: “When someone is the President of the United States, authority is total. And this is as it should be. It is total,” referring to his authority to decide. when to reopen the country amid blockade measures.

His comments quickly led constitutional experts to clarify that his view was incorrect.

A man attends a vigil for Chinese physician Li Wenliang in Hong Kong on February 7, 2020.Kin Cheung / AP

The letter continues to point the finger at China, where the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan City in late 2019.

A Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who raised the alarm about COVID-19, was punished by the police for blowing the whistle. He later died of the coronavirus, causing widespread protests on Chinese social media.

“It is not a coincidence that the current pandemic started in a country where the free flow of information is drowning,” the letter says. “When the voices of responsible citizens are suppressed, the results can be deadly.”

A separate study by the London School of Economics published this month also found that the nation-state had reaffirmed itself during the public health crisis and that the pandemic had led to less democratic participation.

The study also warned that a feeling of “not being heard” among populations could lead to nationalism and people fleeing marginal political groups to gain representation.

“The COVID-19 crisis is an alarming wake-up call, an urgent warning that the freedoms we cherish are at risk and that we should not take them for granted,” the letter said.