Since early March 2020 media coverage of the global pandemic has been non-stop 24/7, to the exclusion of almost everything else that has happened. Hardly surprising, then, that even the most assiduous followers of current events may have missed some important developments over the past year.
Given the unrelenting avalanche of bad news on the pandemic front for all but the last few weeks of this year, ignorance is perhaps not a bad thing in the short term. Most of these other developments are also bad news. However when the world emerges from its pandemic-centred haze in 2021, its leaders and citizens will need to be aware of – and prepared to deal with – these other events if their negative impact is to be minimized or reversed.
What are some of these unfortunate developments? For one thing, this was yet another year in which individual freedoms and democracy itself suffered a significant setback. True, after decades of slow but steady progress worldwide the level of individual freedoms enjoyed by citizens, and the number of stable healthy democracies, has been declining for the past ten years or so. But 2020 set a new low in this unfortunate pattern of regression. [i]
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the former Soviet bloc, led by Russia itself. There, president-for-life Vladimir Putin, concerned about growing citizen protests against his dictatorial and corrupt regime, launched a widespread campaign of arrests and expulsions of prominent activists, culminating in the failed assassination attempt on his leading critic, Alexei Navalny. Similar protests also erupted in Belarus, Poland and Hungary, all former east bloc countries where the establishment of democracy had been widely anticipated. Yet they are led by right-wing populists with growing autocratic tendencies who seem determined to emulate Putin. There was also a sudden outbreak of armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the endlessly disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh despite years of negotiated truce.
Concerning though these developments may be, however, they pale in comparison with the horrendous situation unfolding in India under another populist demagogue, Narendra Modi. With his BJP party in difficulty over the faltering economy and his inept handling of the pandemic, Modi has increasingly resorted to the type of racist scapegoating that can lead (and in India’s case has led) to pogrom-like violence and a form of legislated/bureaucratic ethnic cleansing. From the inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric regularly spouted by his closest aides and colleagues it was a simple step to the suspension of special status for Kashmir — the only Muslim-majority Indian state – and its armed occupation, the detention of senior Kashmiri politicians and revocation of civil liberties in late 2019.
This was followed in short order in early 2020 by two outrageous new discriminatory laws that will reduce 200 million Muslims in India to second-class citizens and make a mockery of India’s status as a secular, plural democracy. The first, the Citizenship Amendment Act, is clearly designed to make it easy for immigrants of every religious faith except Muslims to become Indian citizens. The second, the National Register of Citizens, is even more egregious. It requires hundreds of millions of Indians who have no documents proving their citizenship (a common situation) to “register” to apply for these documents, a process which also will be simple for Hindus and even Sikhs, Budhhists and Christians, but almost impossible for Muslims, thereby effectively rendering them voiceless if not stateless.(Not content with this, the BJP government in the state of Utar Pradesh recently passed the “Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance” to prevent mixed marriages, seen by extremist Hindus as “love jihad,” and several other states are planning to follow suit.)
Not surprisingly these initiatives resulted in widespread but peaceful public protests. But in short order bands of roving Hindu nationalist thugs began to incite violence to disrupt many of these events, encouraged or passively tolerated by BJP politicians. This tension culminated in a three-day anti-Muslim riot by Hindu mobs in Delhi, resulting in 37 Muslim deaths, (some, including children, burned alive) and massive destruction of property while police and government officials stood by and watched. Many thoughtful observers and expert commentators have described these events as India’s “Kristallnacht”. [ii] Yet almost no attention has been paid to these events internationally, leading one analyst to describe Modi as “by far the most dangerous” of the current crop of populist leaders.[iii]
Along with man-made atrocities there have also been a series of natural disasters in every part of the globe – raging fires in California and Australia, category-4 hurricanes in the Caribbean and the east coast of North America, infestations of locusts and drought in Africa, and typhoons and monsoon floods in Asia – which have created numerous humanitarian crises. Normally such drastic events would have lent an increasing sense of urgency to the climate change agenda, but these too have gone largely unremarked during the world’s single-minded focus on the pandemic.
In Africa yet another humanitarian crisis has unfolded, caused not by drought or locusts but by the militaristic power struggle of competing tribes in war-torn Ethiopia. Similarly, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez protégé Nicolas Madura and his socialist party have been clinging to power with the aid of the military for two years, despite international support for opposition leader Juan Guaido and unanimous rejection of the 2018 election results as fraudulent. With the once-prosperous Venezuelan economy already in tatters and thousands of citizens fleeing the country as refugees, the situation deteriorated still further with Madura’s November 2020 election call. Boycotted by the opposition and nearly 80% of eligible voters, the inevitable results saw Maduro’s hold on the legislature, and the country, actually tighten. And in Brazil, where yet another right-wing populist is in charge, the country with the third-highest COVID case load in the world is reeling from the impact of a pandemic whose very existence was hotly denied by president Jair Bolsanaro for months.
Closer to home, Canada’s nearest neighbour and largest trading partner – and the world’s richest and most technologically advanced country — has lurched from one crisis to another in the absence of responsible national leadership. From the needless tragedy of the out-of-control pandemic unfolding south of the border, to the relentless attacks on the credibility of mainstream media and their “fake news” or the eruption of citizen protests movements such as Black Lives Matter, Canadians have been well aware of the turmoil caused by Donald Trump’s presence in the White House. But the significance of his disruption of the established world order, abandoning his country’s lead role in many international bodies and leaving the field open to predatory moves by Russia, China and Iran, is far less well-known. Similarly the president’s promotion of regional, racial and gender-based tensions, polarizing the country, is widely recognized while his dismantling of much of the foundational architecture of democratic government and his flouting of democratic procedures and practice are not. The fact that more than 70 million Americans saw fit to entrust him with another four-year term suggests the road ahead for president-elect Joe Biden will be a long and tortuous one both domestically and internationally.
Meanwhile in Canada, where attention also has been overwhelmingly focussed on the progress and handling of the pandemic, issues such as the ongoing crisis of boil water advisories in First Nations communities and the apparent widespread systemic discrimination and incompetence of the RCMP, have taken a decidedly back seat. Even in the case of China, Canadian attention has been directed primarily at domestic issues — the fate of the two Michaels and/or the imminent federal decision concerning Huawei and 5G. Apart from the recent stripping of any remaining shreds of democratic practice in Hong Kong, much less media coverage has been devoted to China’s increasing belligerence in the Asia Pacific, from military manoeuvres in the South China Sea to repeated threats to retake Taiwan by force, or to its flagrant abuse of human rights with the arbitrary detention and forced labour of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs.
Needless to say this list is hardly exhaustive. There will certainly be a growing number of domestic as well as international non-pandemic issues waiting to take centre stage once vaccines have been distributed and the current crisis abates. Hopefully many of the negative developments of the past year outlined here will be seen as worthy of attention and possible redress at that time.
[i] A number of organizations attempt to measure these concepts using a number of different variables. See for example https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index; https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores
[ii] See for example Gwynne Dyer. “India’s Anti-Muslim Pogrom has Disturbing Similarities to Nazis’ Kristallnacht” Postmedia News. Mar. 3, 2020; Patrick Cockburn. “The Real Modi: Do the Killings of Muslims represent India’s Kristallnacht?” Counterpunch. Mar 3, 2020; and S. Bhatia. “An Indian Kristallnacht in the Making”. The Wire. March 5, 2020.
[iii] Gwynne Dyer. “Of all the populist leaders in democratic countries, Modi is by far the most dangerous” Hill Times. Dec. 23, 2020.