Stephen Bagwell, University of Missouri St. Louis – Respect for Human Rights Declined During the Pandemic

The pandemic hasn’t just affected our health, it’s affected our rights, too.

Stephen Bagwell, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri St. Louis, asks why.

Stephen Bagwell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of political violence-with a special focus on the economic factors that lead governments to repress or respect human rights, and how firms, investors, and consumers respond to rights abuses. His work has appears in the Journal of Global Security Studies, the Journal of Human Rights, Political Violence at a Glance, and The Conversation. He received his PhD from the University of Georgia in 2019.

Respect for Human Rights Declined During the Pandemic


At the onset of the pandemic, human rights activists and international leaders provided a dire warning: the pandemic will be used as an excuse to crack down on human rights. In forthcoming research, and using data from the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, my coauthors and I show that this came to pass. In the 39 countries we analyzed, all saw a decline in respect for human rights after the beginning of the pandemic. For example, declarations of emergency provided police significant power to crack down on political protests and governments an excuse to curb political participation. In Hong Kong, hundreds were arrested in 2020 for violating COVID protocols and launching pro-democracy protests, and the government delayed elections.

While data collection is ongoing for 2021, initial reports from other human rights organizations show that this trend has continued throughout 2021 and into the early parts, at least, of 2022. Hong Kong, for example, delayed elections again in 2022; Cambodia and Thailand both passed extensive anti-opposition laws that have been used to detain hundreds peaceful demonstrators. There are some reasons for optimism, however: governments are lifting many COVID-19 restrictions, which could allow for fewer opportunities for repression. Countries which had better rights protections prior to the pandemic also seemed to experience less severe declines- which could provide an opportunity for advocates to push for even more protections as the world returns to a new normal.

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