Like war, pestilence requires unusual measures, including some that curtail civil liberties. That’s also why aspiring autocrats secretly love such emergencies. When, if not now and in the name of public health, is a better time to usurp total power, eliminate opposition and discreetly bury liberty?

Take, for instance, two wannabe dictators in the European Union, which fancies itself a club of law-abiding democracies. One is Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, a nation that he’s shaped into an “illiberal democracy,” in his own proud words. The other is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the ruling Law & Justice (PiS) party and de facto ruler of Poland. Both are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a flimsy pretext to establish dictatorships in all but name.

This week, Orban had his pliant legislature adopt an “empowerment law.” It lets him rule by decree, and without any time limit whatsoever. The new law also allows Orban to suspend any previous law he doesn’t like and changes the criminal code so that Orban’s government can imprison anybody who in its opinion “distorts” facts. In effect, it’s a silent coup d’etat that leaves Orban’s power unchecked. All in the name of fighting the coronavirus, you understand.

Meanwhile in Poland, Kaczynski just rigged the electoral system so that his party’s candidate, incumbent Andrzej Duda, is sure to remain president in the election slated for May 10. That ballot shouldn’t be taking place in the first place: Poland is in lockdown, which prevents the opposition from campaigning, whereas Duda still travels the country and appears on PiS-controlled TV.

But Kaczynski wants the vote to happen, and also wants to know the outcome already. So early Saturday morning in a largely empty parliament where PiS has the absolute majority, he suddenly introduced 79 pages of amendments into an emergency law ostensibly targeted at the coronavirus. The changes, which alter the election rules to favor PiS, violate parliamentary rules and the constitution. Jerzy Stepien, a former president of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, called the move another step toward a “dictatorship in Poland.”

The EU could and should punish Hungary and Poland, but that would take unanimity, and Orban and Kaczynski, along with a few of their Eastern European pals, have each other’s backs. So the only remaining checks on the two leaders would in theory be their own countries’ courts. Conveniently, however, both have spent years stacking them with loyalists. With their new powers, they’ll be able to make their judiciaries fully beholden to them.

Poland and Hungary are in a sense providing a user manual for creeping autocratic takeovers, and lots of eager students are paying attention. From India to Russia and Brazil, leaders seem quite enthusiastic about all sorts of drastic emergency measures that just happen to eliminate political nuisances. China’s Xi Jinping already has, of course; but he at least never pretended to be a democrat.

None of this is really new. Epidemics have put freedom-loving societies to the test at least since the plague struck Periclean Athens in 430 BC. The difference is that today the tools of epidemiology are also potentially perfect instruments of totalitarianism.

From China to Singapore and the West, governments are using or deploying artificial intelligence, facial recognition and social-contact analysis to trace the viral pathways. These same technologies can also turn into permanent surveillance for other purposes.

But who wants to seem “unpatriotic” right now, or to put lives at risk by saying no to containment efforts as the bodies mount? And yet, we must insist on limits if we treasure our liberties. At some point, this pandemic will recede. And when it does, the extraordinary measures to contain it must end as well. Otherwise, we will have survived one hell only to enter another.

Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.