FILE - Police officers check motorists on a road access point to Tandarei, eastern Romania, April 4, 2020, after authorities imposed a severe quarantine status on the city.
FILE - Police officers check motorists on a road access point to Tandarei, eastern Romania, April 4, 2020, after authorities imposed a severe quarantine status on the city.

Outside wartime, nothing like it as ever been seen before in modern Western history. 

The lockdowns by democratic states, with sometimes draconian constraints on civil liberties and private enterprise, fly in the face of an historical progression that since the 1980s has seen the size and roles of governments shrunk and individual liberty boosted, say analysts.  

As governments mobilize resources and coerce people in a life-and-death struggle to contain the coronavirus, the state has been unbound.  

People have been confined indoors, police powers expanded, data-surveillance increased and businesses shuttered. All with relatively little debate. 

The size and scope of the state's role in the economy prompted by the coronavirus dwarfs anything mounted to handle the 2008 financial crash. Britain, France and other European countries have offered so far loans and subsidies worth around 15% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The U.S. stimulus package, about 10% of the country's GDP, was dubbed by Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump's economic adviser, "the single largest Main Street assistance program in the history of the United States." 

Municipal police officers check documents as they patrol in a street of Sceaux, south of Paris, France, during nationwide confinement measures to counter the Covid-19, April 8, 2020.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron's government not only passed legislation giving it the legal right to control the movement of people, but also seized the power to manage prices and requisition goods. In the United States, President Trump has used the Defense Production Act to prevent the export of surgical masks and gloves.

State power in Western democracies is at its most intrusive since the Second World War. For die-hard advocates of free markets and limited government, the abrupt change in direction is horrifying. For others it is less so, even something to be embraced, a harbinger of the future, a turning point that will end up re-reordering their countries.

"In times of crisis, checks and balances are often ignored in the name of executive power. The danger is that the temporary can become permanent," Florian Bieber, a professor of history and politics at the University of Graz in Austria, wrote in a recent op-ed for Foreign Policy.

The Future: Left, right and ‘illiberal'

For those on the progressive left, the emergence of state power is a vindication of long-held beliefs that market-based models for social organization fail the majority of people. They hope the crisis will provide the opportunity to refashion along less market-oriented and more socialist lines. In the United States, supporters of Bernie Sanders say the crisis has exposed for all to see America's threadbare social-safety net and the need for a government-run single-payer health care system.

Britain's former Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said that the government's massive and unprecedented underwriting of the British economy and labor market vindicated his pre-coronavirus election manifesto, seen by commentators as the most leftwing program ever presented by the modern Labour Party. The party's manifesto outlined a massive re-nationalization program of utilities and major companies and placing workers on the boards of large companies. 

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On Europe's far right, there is hope that the eventual political outcome from the coronavirus will be along lines more to their liking: A future of strong nation states and powerful central governments far less hedged in by Brussels.

Europe's nationalist populists have long demanded more border controls and have advocated for a break with the Schengen system of passport-free travel. They hope the imposition of temporary border controls, in the face of the disapproval of Brussels, will lead to the break-up of Schengen permanently.

Populists have focused during the coronavirus crisis on blaming Europe's open borders for the rapid spread of the virus. Alice Weidel, the Alternative for Germany party's co-leader in the Bundestag, was quick to attack "the dogma of open borders" for the transmission of the virus. Radical populists in the Netherlands did the same when the virus emerged.

Luca Zaia, for example, the governor of Italy's hard-hit Veneto region and a member of Matteo Salvini's populist Lega party, has told reporters that "Schengen no longer exists" and predicted, "It will be remembered only in the history books."  

Some are not waiting for history to reward them.

FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban replies to an oppositional MP during a question and answer session of the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, March 30, 2020.

 Hungary's firebrand populist Viktor Orbán, a proponent of what he dubs "illiberal democracy," has seized the moment to accrue more power. Since his re-election in 2010, civil libertarians have denounced him for initiating a concerted erosion of democratic checks and balances, including the curbing of judicial independence, the politicization of the civil service and state interference in media and civil society. 

The country's parliament, which is controlled by his right-wing nationalist part, has Orbán power to rule indefinitely by decree, shrugging off opposition demands for at least an end-date to his one-man-rule in the heart of the European Union. 

As the vote passed on the emergency legislation, Orbán assured the national assembly: "When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception." He added: "Changing our lives is now unavoidable. Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary."

Critics question Orbán's motives and fear he won't relinquish all the powers he accrued. 

"The Hungarian situation offers us a glimpse of how world politics may function during and after the coronavirus crisis unless we give it careful thought," frets Umut Korkut, a politics professor at Scotland's Glasgow Caledonian University. 

Tom Palmer, a vice president at the Atlas Network, a nonprofit which advocates for free-market economic policies and limited government, agrees. The Hungarian example — as well as the unbinding of the state elsewhere in the West, as in Poland — prompts his alarm. "There is a rising tide of authoritarian statism coming," he says.

Coffins arriving from the Bergamo area are being unloaded from a military truck that transported them in the cemetery of Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan in Northern Italy, March 27, 2020.

Other analysts and commentators remain more sanguine, pointing out that while many Western governments have taken emergency powers during this viral outbreak, no other democracy has given a leader full control as in Hungary.

The tradeoff: Lives vs. liberty

Faced with the prospect of tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of deaths, Western governments have had little option but to expand their authority. People want governments to do whatever is needed to save lives. Once the acute phase of the pandemic is over, the logic goes, everything can revert to how it was. 

In announcing in March the most widespread restrictions in peacetime on the movement of the British people, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said no one "wants to enact measures like these," but added that it is the only way to beat the coronavirus and save lives. 

The crisis may even allow for an improvement of democracy — a renewal involving reform of hidebound bureaucracy and greater responsiveness by government.

"It is undeniable that the government's lockdown, with its draconian constraint on our liberties, represents state power at its most intrusive," wrote Dominic Lawson, a columnist at Britain's Times newspaper. But he noted that to keep the economy going and to help the national health service, "The government has actually been deregulating in recent weeks" with private-sector initiatives and cutting through red tape.

The fight against the coronavirus has exposed bureaucratic inertia and a leaden-footedness in the West. Critics say bureaucracies have become arthritic and reluctant to embrace innovation and flexibility.  

FILE - A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, March 11, 2020, in Lake Success, New York.

With the exception of Germany, many Western states bungled virus testing and been sluggish to embrace the great strength of industries and manufacturers. In Britain  and the United States, commercial and university laboratories were blocked for weeks from developing their own tests for the virus. The government-designed testing kits rolled out at first were faulty.

It remains unclear whether the unbound state will relinquish its expanded authority once the crisis is over. "Some will reassure themselves that it is just temporary and that it will leave almost no mark, as with Spanish flu a century ago," the Economist magazine editorialized in March.

"However, the scale of the response makes COVID-19 more like a war or the Depression. And here the record suggests that crises lead to a permanently bigger state with many more powers and responsibilities and the taxes to pay for them," the editors wrote, observing that governments are never good at returning powers they've secured. 

Among autocrats: A stronger hand

Outside of the democratic states of the West, the picture is gloomier. Dictators and strongmen have been using the crisis to tighten their grip on power, say critics. Many are fearful of political and social revolt triggered by scarcity, fear and an uncontrolled spread of the virus.

A member of the non-profit Cambodian Children's Fund sprays disinfectant to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in the slum neighborhood of Stung Meanchey in southern Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 24, 2020.

In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has cited the threat of the coronavirus to crack down even harder on opposition. So, too, in Cambodia, where Hun Sen has been arresting dissidents on grounds of spreading false information about the virus and scapegoating Muslims for introducing it to the country. 

"In Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey, governments are detaining journalists, opposition activists, healthcare workers, and anyone else who dares to criticize the official response to the coronavirus," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. 

"For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power. Censorship in China and elsewhere has fed the pandemic, helping to turn a potentially containable threat into a global calamity," Roth says. "The health crisis will inevitably subside, but autocratic governments' dangerous expansion of power may be one of the pandemic's most enduring legacies."

FILE - Lebanese policemen remove protesters' tents in Martyrs Square in Beirut, March 28, 2020.

The coronavirus has given governments in the Middle East some breathing space from protest movements that have been burgeoning this year. Public demonstrations have been banned on social distancing grounds. But the virus and food scarcity risk upending regimes.

In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, protesters have flouted curfew orders to mount anti-government protests. 

A precipitous fall in oil prices risks destabilizing even strong central powers. With revenues plunging, Saudi Arabia's ruling family is also at risk, say analysts. Few, though, believe another a coronavirus-sparked repeat of an Arab spring would give rise to the emergence of democracy — more likely just a swap of authoritarians.

According to Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the coronavirus is "just one crisis on top of multiple crises — economic, political, conflict, and it raises the question: ‘Is this just one other element that pushes the region over the edge,' particularly if you put it beside the collapse in oil prices, which has gutted the finances of Saudi Arabia and Iraq." 

Speaking to the nation last month, France's Macron promised his people, "The day after we emerge victorious, will not be like the day before." His words were meant to reassure the French that the virus would give rise to helpful reforms.

For some countries, they could prove prophetic in quite the opposite way.

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