North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

Since the beginning of 2020, our attention has been consumed by COVID-19 and its fallout in Australia. If we’ve looked overseas it’s often been at New Zealand, or the health disasters in the US and UK.

But while we were looking there, serious developments arose around the world: several nations have used COVID-19 as a cover to crack down on dissent, single out minorities, abuse human rights, or build up an arsenal.

United States

It would be simply absurd to start this list anywhere else. The US is a basket case. If you draw back from the cultural and political influence and historical entanglements, the bare facts are: rioting supporters of the outgoing president — who has persistently refused to accept the result of the election — stormed the Capitol in an apparent attempt at a coup. If this happened in, say, an African nation — as was gleefully pointed out by Kenya’s Daily Nation — phrases like banana republic would be thrown around with abandon.

Alongside this is one of the worst global responses to COVID-19: tens of thousands of new cases every day, and more daily deaths than Australia has managed across the whole of the pandemic so far.


Iran is still enriching uranium — by up to 20% now — the biggest breach of the nuclear deal it made with world powers since Donald Trump (and, in effect, Iran) withdrew from it. This is not hawkish conspiracy talk. The news comes from a government spokesperson on the state-run Mehr News Agency.

On the same day it let us know about its uranium, Iranian troops seized a South Korean ship carrying ethanol in the Persian Gulf.

And at the same time Trump overruled acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller and ordered a US aircraft carrier to return to the Middle East. Miller’s order last week to send the USS Nimitz out of the region was seen, in part, as an attempt at de-escalation with Iran amid rising tensions around the anniversary of the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

Speculation has inevitably followed that Trump may trigger a conflict with Iran to distract from his garbage attempts to overturn his election loss and to saddle president-elect Joe Biden with a Middle East conflict as he comes into power.


The murderous “war on drugs” conducted by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration somehow managed to become more prolific during the Philippines’ COVID-19 lockdown, according to government statistics.

Police killed 50% more people between April and July last year than they had in the previous four months.

Between Duterte taking office in June 2016 and the end of July 2020, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency had, by its own reckoning, killed nearly 6000 people.

The Philippines’ lockdown was among the harshest and longest in the world. Duterte has been accused of ignoring scientific advice and simply herding people into their homes. After months of the strict lockdown, it has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in South-East Asia.

There have been mass arrests of journalists and activists on trumped-up charges of kidnapping, serious illegal detention, and destructive arson. Others, such as Dr Mary Rose Sancelan, Zara Alvarez and Randall Echanis, have been murdered.

Meanwhile, there was the small matter of the forced shutdown of the country’s biggest media network, ABS-CBN, in May.


Israel’s vaccine rollout has been record-setting: the initial dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer shot has been given to more than a 10% of the population.

But as a stark illustration of both the inequality likely to mark vaccination worldwide as well as the ongoing apartheid status of the occupied territories, the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — where cases continue to surge — have been excluded.

North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un uncharacteristically admitted to economic failures in this week’s party conference, as the already struggling hermit kingdom reeled from the pandemic, sanctions and floods. One area that is apparently thriving is, as ever, North Korea’s military complex.

A parade in October marking the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea unveiled an arsenal of new weapons, including armoured vehicles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.


India also had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world and, again, this served, by design or otherwise, as a block on dissent.

The BBC reports that Safoora Zargar, three months’ pregnant, was arrested in Delhi for participating in a protest against a controversial citizenship law which is seen to disproportionately target India’s Muslim population. She was held for two months in the overcrowded Tihar jail.

She was one of dozens arrested during the first half of 2020, mostly journalists, students and activists.

South Africa

The pandemic has dredged up racial tensions in South Africa on many levels. First, in the layout of the country bequeathed by apartheid. While social distancing is more or less impossible in the poor, overcrowded and almost entirely black townships, the white minority largely lives in spaced-out suburbs.

South Africa imposed a strict and harsh lockdown which may have saved lives but saw heavy-handed — at times deadly — policing. An estimated 200,000 people were arrested, warned or fined, often for fairly minor infringements. Again, this disproportionally affected poor black South Africans.


The country has faced a year of political turmoil — last February prime minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned and there was an immediate crackdown on dissent, with pro-democracy protesters arrested, in some cases for nothing more than tweets.

Now the government has declared a state of emergency for an unspecified time frame, nominally aimed at reducing cases of COVID-19. Critics are arguing this is actually to protect new PM Muhyiddin Yassin, who has a wafer thin majority. The state of emergency allows, among other things, the government to bypass the Parliament in passing laws and prevents another election being held.

Muhyiddin has helpfully explained during a televised speech that what’s happening is NOT “a military coup”, the kind of thing it’s sometimes necessary for people not conducting a military coup to say.