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Viral Authoritarianism

In the rush to mitigate a public-health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, illiberal governments around the world are testing the limits of civil rights and democratic checks and balances. As history has shown time and again, there is no better moment than an emergency for aspiring strongmen to consolidate power.

NEW YORK – “God and the people are the source of all power … I have taken it, and damn it, I will keep it forever,” declared Haiti’s François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1963. And so he did, remaining president until his death in 1971, whereupon he was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), who extended the dictatorship another 15 years.

This may seem like ancient history. But not to me. My family is Haitian, and though we immigrated to the United States during my childhood, we always seemed to remain within reach of the Duvaliers’ ruthless regime. I have never lost sight of the brutal lessons Haitians learned under the Duvaliers, including how they regularly used natural disasters and national crises to tighten their stranglehold on power.

We must heed that lesson today. COVID-19 is a threat not just to public health, but also to human rights. Throughout history, crises like the current one have served as a convenient pretext for authoritarian regimes to normalize their tyrannical impulses. My parents witnessed this firsthand in Haiti. We are all seeing it again now.

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