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Great distractions

For those who wish to conclude unfinished agenda, be it of benign or sinister kind, the news cycle dominated by Covi

May 29, 2020

For those who wish to conclude unfinished agenda, be it of benign or sinister kind, the news cycle dominated by Covid-19 has provided ample cover. Earlier this month, following prolonged litigations, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would stop selling its legendary (and allegedly carcinogenic) baby talcum powder in US and Canada. How convenient, critics charged, that this “development” came when the rest of the world, where this product still flies off the shelves, currently has bigger issues to deal with.

Turns out J&J is not the only one, and this questionable way of using a global crisis to force through major changes while the public is looking elsewhere is rampant among all kinds of political regimes. A review of different countries where major non-Covid developments are taking place illustrates different tactics but similar underlying motivation: get controversial things done fast as news cycle is focused on the pandemic.

Some countries are using a sleight of hand so that the public won’t be able to differentiate whether it’s coronavirus at work or something else. For instance, the current UK government, which had promised to avoid a no-deal Brexit, is hurtling towards that outcome later this year. That extreme scenario, where the UK leaves the European Union without any trade deal, may provoke supply-chain disruptions and unemployment. The Johnson government perhaps feels that the public, which already hard done by the virus, wouldn’t be able to distinguish.

Then there are countries speeding through nationalist agendas. In occupied Kashmir, Indian government has now issued domicile rules that allow non-locals who have spent some years in the state to enjoy same rights and benefits that were previously reserved for local, permanent residents. This top-down domicile liberalization, which happened without consulting local leaders or politicians, is controversial because Kashmir, whose territorial status remains an international dispute, had already lost its semi-autonomous status last summer and now its demography looks set to be nationalized.

It is also obvious that the pandemic has blunted Western criticism on hot-button issues overseas. Over in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has seized its moment to roll back on the city’s autonomy. With the US and the UK dealing with their own political backlash over very high Covid-related death tolls, Beijing is reportedly implementing a law that will give it sweeping powers to conduct policing in Hong Kong. Previously, such moves had met stiff resistance from locals and condemnations from outside. But now, amid coronavirus, it is proving difficult for protesters to mobilize support and assemble large crowds.

Interestingly, as many governments have dealt the pandemic partisan jabs, democracies are also backsliding due to controversial laws, such as the ones in Hungary that target dissent and expression. America is also a casualty, where presidential elections are due November 3, but it is unclear how in-person voting will happen if the second corona wave hits in the fall. As Donald Trump is strongly opposed to the use of mail-vote – Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from states that allow mail ballot – it may lead to “voter suppression,” as many people would be unable to vote due to viral fears. This will favor Trump more as the Democratic-leaning states are among the worst-hit by the pandemic.

And finally, some countries are linking contentious “reforms” with pandemic response. Here at home, the fate of the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment (2010) hangs in the balance. The federal government has been arguing that its capacity to fight the virus is limited due to the dilution of administrative and fiscal powers. The opposition, mainly in Sindh, disagrees and has vowed to fight any reversal. Critics have charged that it’s really convenient that just ten years in, a massive project of political decentralization is being maligned for healthcare failings of many decades. But for others who feel strongly against decentralization, letting this crisis go to waste might be a terrible thing.