Sunday, 31 May, 2020

Beyond Virus Threats

Aashish Mishra

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is changing the world and we might never get back to normalcy. The world has not seen such an outbreak for a century, an outbreak where the mere act of going outside puts people at risk, an outbreak that demands a complete halt to our lives and an outbreak which seems to be provoking an admiration for strong political leadership.
Many western nations claim that China does not practice ‘democracy’ but it has been able to contain its coronavirus outbreak so quickly. Whereas, liberal, “democratic” countries debated imposing travel restrictions, lockdown, personal rights and social need, China simply went ahead and did them. It mobilised its vast surveillance network to keep a tab on almost every one of its citizens, apps were used track users’ movements, social media platforms were “controlled” to prevent rumours and misinformation. And it worked. China flattened its curve and is now regarded as a success story. In fact, the whole concept of “lockdown” that nearly one-third of humanity is currently under, came from China.
Another success story is Singapore, which flattened its curve by contact tracing – building a movement log of infected people through surveillance, digital signatures and a Bluetooth-tracking smartphone app called TraceTogether.
But seeing these countries succeed where many other countries are failing is serving to show that states need a strong hand at the helm in times of crises like these. And world governments are frighteningly taking notice. Take a look at Hungary, which essentially has become the first authoritarian state in the European Union.
On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely, establish a state of emergency without a time limit, suspended elections and instituted prison time for spreading [rather vaguely defined] “fake news” or rumours – basically, it created a dictatorship in the name of fighting the coronavirus.
Similarly, countries like Israel, Italy and Austria are working with their telecommunications networks to use anonymised location data to track people’s movements and to check if they are violating the lockdown. Russia is using its massive nationwide facial recognition system to catch people who break quarantine and self-isolation rules. The president of the Philippines has literally asked his security forces to shoot those violating the lockdown.
India, the largest democracy in the world, has also adopted aggressive measures to control the spread of the coronavirus and track infections. The country is contemplating stamping infected people with indelible ink that doesn’t wash off for weeks. The government is seeking a ruling from the country’s Supreme Court that would force all media outlets to only print, broadcast and post government-approved COVID-19 content.
And in the country’s southern state of Karnataka, quarantined people are now required to download an app on their phones, through which they must take and send a selfie, which includes GPS coordinates, every hour to government officials.
And the people are taking all this in stride because they feel that these are necessary measures, they think that by giving their governments limitless power, they will be protected against the disease.
But the thing about power is that once given, it is hard to take back. The best-case scenario is that the states repeal this emergency measures after the crisis is over but, as history has shown, that doesn’t often happen. So, while keeping ourselves safe from the virus, we must also be vigilant of the authoritarianism that is slowly creeping up on us and the rights we are giving up that we may never get back. 

How do you feel after reading this news?