When Disease Comes, Rulers Grab More Power


On March 13—Friday the 13th, as it happened—my husband was driving down a Polish highway when he turned on the news and learned that the country’s borders would shut down in 24 hours. He pulled over and called me. I bought a ticket from London to Warsaw minutes later. I don’t live there all of the time, but my husband is Polish, the only house I own is in rural Poland, and I wanted to be in it. The next morning, Heathrow Airport was spookily empty except for the Warsaw flight, which was packed with people trying to get one of the last commercial trips back into their country. During check-in, agents were refusing to board passengers without a Polish passport (I have one) or residency documents. Then someone realized that the new rules went into effect only at midnight, and so I witnessed a conversation between one of the stewards and two non-Polish passengers: “You realize that you might not be able to fly out again. You realize that you may be in Warsaw for a very long time …”

That same day, we called our college-freshman son in the United States and told him to get to the airport. He had been planning to stay with friends and family after his university closed. Instead, we gave him 30 minutes’ notice to get on one of the last flights to London, connecting to one of the last flights to Berlin. By the time he landed in Europe on Sunday, Poland had shut its borders to all public transportation. He took a train from Berlin to Frankfurt an der Oder, a town at the Polish-German border. Then he got out and walked across, carrying his luggage, as if in a Cold War movie about a spy exchange. He saw roadblocks, soldiers with guns, men in hazmat suits taking temperatures. My husband picked him up on the other side.

Poland was not the first European country to shut its borders, nor was it the last. About a dozen European countries have now halted or dramatically slowed border crossings. In addition, the Schengen Area—the European Union’s free-movement zone—has now stopped admitting non-EU citizens. The medical evidence for these dramatic border closures is muddy: Amy Pope, a former National Security Council staffer who worked on the Ebola crisis in 2014, told me that the Obama administration considered closing borders to travelers from West Africa at the time, but “scientists strongly advised against it, as it would likely make the outbreak worse.” Border closures, without careful planning, can slow down movement of equipment and expertise or create clusters of infectious people at airports and other checkpoints. Closures also give the illusion of resolute action without changing the reality on the ground. Back in January, President Donald Trump’s decision to stop flights from China gave him and his administration the false sense that they had stopped COVID-19. They had not.

In Poland’s case, the abrupt, seemingly unplanned decision caused massive chaos. Polish citizens are now stranded all over the place, and the government has been forced to arrange charter flights to get them home. Thousands of citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states—including truck drivers and tourists just trying to get home—were lined up in their cars at the Polish-German border for several days, using nearby fields as a toilet, because border guards were refusing non-Poles entry. The German Red Cross was handing out food, drinks, and blankets.

None of these harsh, dramatic measures stopped the virus in Poland. The epidemic had already begun to spread a few weeks earlier and is still spreading. But despite the chaos—perhaps even because of the chaos—the border clampdown is immensely popular. The state is doing something. And this may be a harbinger of what is to come.

There is nothing new about the sudden enthusiasm for aggressive government intervention during a health crisis. Throughout history, pandemics have led to an expansion of the power of the state. As the Black Death spread across Europe in 1348, the authorities in Venice closed the city’s port to vessels coming from plague-infested areas and forced all travelers into 30 days of isolation, which eventually became 40 days; hence the word quarantine. A couple of centuries later, William Cecil, the chief minister to Queen Elizabeth I, battled the plague in England with a law that allowed authorities to shut the sick in their houses for six weeks. A few years later, the Plague Act of 1604 made criticizing these and other measures illegal.

At least while they were frightened, people complied. At times when people fear death, they go along with measures that they believe, rightly or wrongly, will save them—even if that means a loss of freedom. Such measures have been popular in the past. Liberals, libertarians, democrats, and freedom-lovers of all kinds should not fool themselves: They will be popular now too.

In some European countries, we are already watching that process unfold with a good deal of social consensus. Italy has gone into total lockdown. All shops and businesses are closed except those deemed essential; roadblocks are in place to prevent unnecessary travel; public parks and playgrounds are shut. Italian police already have fined tens of thousands of people for being outside without a valid reason. Since last Tuesday, Paris has been on a similarly stringent lockdown. You cannot leave home without filling out a form; 100,000 police officers have been assigned to make sure people don’t break the rules. On one day alone—Wednesday of last week—French police issued 4,000 fines for being outside for nonessential reasons.

Harsh, yes—but people now accept these measures as necessary. The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, enjoys the support of seven out of 10 Italians at the moment, an extraordinary number in a country that historically distrusts its politicians. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has openly described the fight against the virus as a “war,” and this tougher approach and language have won him a majority of national approval too.

Taking advantage of this impulse, some are already going much farther. On Friday, the Hungarian government sent a bill to Parliament that will give dictatorial powers to the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in the name of the “emergency.” For an indefinite period of time, he will be able to ignore whichever laws he wishes, without consulting legislators; elections and referenda are to be suspended. Breaking of quarantine will become a crime, punishable by a prison sentence. The spread of false information or other information that causes “disturbance” or “unrest” will also be a crime, also punishable by a prison sentence. It is unclear who will define false: The language is vague enough that it could include almost any criticism of the government’s public-health policy. None of this will fix the fact that Hungary is one of the European countries least prepared to fight the pandemic—not least because the policies of its nationalist government persuaded so many educated people, doctors included, to leave the country.

In normal times, the Hungarian opposition would never support such a blatant transfer of power, especially one that seems designed to hide the government’s failures. But at this time, some who would normally oppose the government will go along. “All of their warning systems have been switched off,” Péter Krekó, a Hungarian analyst, told me. At this moment of rising fear, he said, nobody wants to be seen as unpatriotic, as somehow harming the health and safety of Hungarians. Everybody wants to believe in the essential goodness of the nation and the state.

A similarly abrupt transition is taking place in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu—still prime minister despite having lost a recent election—has enacted an emergency decree that allows him to postpone the start of his own criminal trial and that prevents the newly elected Israeli Parliament, in which the opposition has a majority, from convening. He has also given himself huge new powers of surveillance without any oversight. Institutions and tactics normally used to track terrorists will now be used to monitor quarantine compliance, follow average citizens’ activity and movement, and keep track of their temperatures and health status. A part of the Israeli population will never accept either the enhanced role of security services or Netanyahu’s self-interested crackdown: The English edition of the newspaper Ha’aretz has already dubbed these moves a “corona-coup.” But as long as Israelis are frightened, another part of the population will.

Americans should be prepared for their fellow citizens to react the same way. Our federal system does give us some advantage: Quarantine powers vary from state to state; those who enforce them are more likely to be state police than federal security services. But the American president has already proved that he prefers gesture politics to real measures, border closures to the mass production of masks and test kits. More to the point, he has a longer record: The Ukraine scandal showed us that Trump has little respect for rule of law, and the Mueller investigation showed us that he cares little for the independence of the Department of Justice. He has already abused government power for political reasons, and he has a loud claque of supporters who have applauded him for doing so. In the coming weeks or months, it is very likely that he will use this crisis to accrue more power, just like Orbán and Netanyahu have, and it is very likely that Fox News will support him. So will many Americans. The Department of Justice, Politico has reported, has already asked Congress for powers to detain Americans without trial, even though such powers are not remotely necessary. Those lawmakers who resist these and similar measures to come should prepare to be accused of endangering their constituents’ lives.

In an alternate universe with a different president, health officials in the United States could have had better options, better ways to channel public anxiety, better ways to monitor the public’s well-being, using technology and without suspending the rule of law. South Korea, a flourishing and robust democracy, is using apps to track coronavirus patients and others under quarantine yet has not felt the need to suspend Parliament. Sema Sgaier of the Surgo Foundation, an organization that promotes the use of data and behavioral science in public health, points out that technology can help in other ways—for instance, by monitoring outbreaks of COVID-19 so that quarantines and lockdowns can be targeted to particular neighborhoods or towns, thereby avoiding the blanket shutdowns that entire American states have imposed. It should also be possible to use tracking technology in transparent ways, offering citizens the right to log out of the system once the pandemic is over.

Here in Poland, the government is a long way away from deploying such sophisticated tactics, and the old methods are still in place. Local police in our rural district have been phoning, regularly, to make sure that everyone in our house remains inside: 14 days of quarantine are now compulsory for everyone in the country who has returned from abroad. They have been polite. I understand that they are doing their jobs, and I understand that the point is to make people safe. But neither I nor anyone else on their lists has any way of knowing whether, after this epidemic subsides, new powers ceded to the authorities during the crisis will ever be given back.

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