The global COVID-19 pandemic has led many nations to resort to extensive emergency powers. Governments have adopted previously unimaginable measures, such as nationwide lockdowns, border closures, mandatory tracking and quarantine regimes. Drawing on social and constitutional theory, this papers offers an analysis of current responses to the pandemic and illuminates the dangers of the ‘mission creep’ of emergency powers by situating COVID-19 response within the historical context of the ‘emergency paradigm’ in India, South Africa and Chile. I track responses to other situations framed as emergencies, such as the disputes over Jammu and Kashmir in India, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and more recent pro-democracy protests in Chile. These experiences suggest a similar trajectory of overreach of emergency powers across political, cultural and legal contexts, and allows us to observe how COVID-19 response differ from measures to tackle crises in existent emergency literature.