COVID-19 response utilized to erode democracy in some countries

In 2020, some already fragile states saw human rights weakened

July 19, 2021

Life with COVID-19 in Gaza. While the socio-economic and health impacts of the pandemic have grabbed most of the headlines, the virus has also enabled repression and the denial of human rights.

UNDP PAPP/Abed Zagout

COVID-19 restrictions contributed to an increase in political violence in some nations, and provided an opportunity for autocratic regimes to further erode human rights and democratic institutions says a new paper.  

There was an increase in protests and riots in the majority of fragile states in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Secondary impacts of COVID-19: Closing civic space in fragile contexts. More than 80,000 incidents of political violence were recorded during the year.

“The pandemic has caused many nations to go backwards on hard won development gains. And extreme poverty has risen for the first time in decades,” says Klaus Kristensen, UNDP Programme Analyst and one of the authors of the paper. “However, our research shows that it also had a negative political impact as well. In some countries already facing instability because of previous conflicts, people took to the street to protest lockdown measures, human rights violations in enforcement of these measures, and the mismanagement of COVID-19.”

The data shows that this was mirrored by a significant increase in state repression in response to the pandemic. During the crisis, 61 percent of countries implemented policies that violated human rights. Close to 90 percent of fragile countries, where democratic governance is vulnerable and institutions often weak, saw violations of democratic standards during 2020.

“Some governments used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on dissent and limit freedoms,” says Kristensen. “Violations occurred in the vast majority of countries where, prior to the pandemic, the government was categorized as autocratic. In some places, COVID-19 has been a pretext for repression.”

Using six national case studies, the study gives specific examples of this type of repression, citing incidences of voter repression and delayed elections, harassment and violence against journalists, increased censorship, political repression against those critical of government responses to the pandemic, fatal violence against public protest, targeting of LGBT+ groups, and the illegal detention of migrant workers.  

The high levels of political protests and violence experienced in 2020 could indicate a level of repressed discontent, currently restrained by the pandemic response, and the study urges caution as COVID-19 restrictions are eased across the globe. “That 2020 followed a record-breaking year of protests globally suggests potential risk of increased conflict and instability as movement restrictions are removed,” it says.  


Some governments used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on dissent and limit freedoms

Klaus Kristensen, UNDP Programme Analyst