The present pandemic, like all other infections that have swept across the globe, has affected us unequally. The worst hit are the most disadvantaged, economically impoverished, medically challenged segment of the population. Consequently, these service employees have been mostly affected with the world economies shutting down. This section of the population which comprises billions of people, has been acutely punished by the stringent controls on movement.
The question that arises is whether this type of authoritarian diktat affects the people who most need employment to survive. The pandemic serves as a mirror to our society. How long are we going to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t see those that are the most affected by the global lockdowns? This is not a moment to gain political leverage; it’s a time to handle the crisis with some common sense.
Albert Camus’s classic The Plague, apart from being a chilling narrative of a catastrophe, is an evocation of the brutal ‘lockdown’ during the German Occupation of France. Here, the evil of authoritarianism and coerced compliance becomes synonymous with the bacillus; both are deeply heartless, unreasonable, and ruthlessly indifferent to human suffering and affliction. An epidemic, as Camus writes, is indeed, “a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organiser, doing his work thoroughly and well.”
Echoing the salient features of each other, the horrifying scenario of suffering at the hands of the virus becomes the hunting ground of intimidating forces of the state, with its knowledge of human vulnerabilities, which, like the virus, establishes a stranglehold of predatory capitalism sponsored by the state. People stand abandoned both by the state as well as the industry, destitute and wretched. The disadvantaged, always at risk, begin to exist entirely at the mercy of those who govern, wretchedly failing to draw the attention of the rich.
On the other hand, it is through treachery and deception that the state creates myths of scarcity, whereby people become easy victims to a predatory state doling out an exaggerated discourse of false consciousness amongst the masses. Dwelling in a doomsday syndrome, the masses unfailingly fall into a sense of inertia or complacency, passively accepting the fate of ‘endism’.
Democratic institutions, it has been seen, have often failed to counter the evils of repression. Instead of heeding the ominous warnings of cataclysmic climate change, the indefensible growth, environmental pollution and unashamed under-resourcing of health services, the forces of oligarchy expediently generate unfavourable conditions of food availability and medical essentials in times of urgency. The crafting of a volatile period of unrest and dependence on the powerful apparently assists the fascist agenda of manipulating the state machinery to restrict civil liberties, freedom of press, resistance movements and the right to assemble.
This violation of civil and human rights has a lasting impact on the democratic culture of the future as well as the existence of a fair criminal legal system. For instance, the rampant exercise of surveillance and lockdowns displays nothing but deceit, racism and xenophobia. The bureaucratic absolutism is apparent in the daily detentions without trials in the US. And interestingly, many are strategically charged with ‘terrorism’ for the subterraneous spreading of the virus. This atmosphere of exaggerated terror and vulnerability, therefore, succeeds in subduing the public into full resignation to the disaster and the devious state.
The wide-ranging sweep and dangers of the virulent pandemic become the rationale for calling a lockdown with any social distancing violations punishable. This may be a necessity, as is apparent in many countries across the globe.
However, the pervasive use of controversial surveillance technologies to deliberately target the marginalised is a downright contravention of human rights. As diversionary tactics, the state deviously engineers the culpability of illiterate immigrants, undocumented migrants, as well as religious and racial minorities for violating social distancing or the norms of a lockdown. Surveillance through drones equipped with ‘fever detecting’ thermal imaging and facial recognition technology are used to enhance contact tracing, thereby breaking into the privacy of an individual.
Recent apps produced by the notorious data-mining firms, which are in cahoots with military intelligence, enable the agencies to locate any breach of immigration laws, thereby facilitating deportations. Ankle monitors outfitted with global positioning devices are reminders of a harsh prison system and curtailing of civil liberties. Such technologies overtly hold out promises of solutions to the pandemic crisis, but end up in facilitating the militarisation of the state.
The pandemic and its devastating fallout that has disillusioned mankind may in the future bring some meaningful lessons for a more transparent and participatory governance system where all join in to take this crisis as more of an opportunity of self-discipline as well as of reinventing institutions based on the principles of justice, sustainability, and equity.
Surely, a civil society cannot allow cooption by the government and its hardline approach to the virus phenomenon. The measures of social distancing and hygiene are legitimate, but to use the state apparatus for restricting liberties is to take advantage of a crisis and create a panopticon-like environment controlled by the state.
The problem, indeed, needs to be treated more as a health issue or a social concern than a political matter, where the mature citizenry enjoys the right to collectively intervene in the decision-making of public policies as well as responsibly exercise full social distancing and self-regulation. In times of oppression, people have always come forth with help for their suffering fellow citizens with different ethnic backgrounds, as is clear in the cases of the Holocaust victims or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Many of us look towards the future with a mutated behaviour and a culture where governance results from the interventions of the migrants, disabled, poor, coloured who come together in a spirit of solidarity to challenge the world of privileges and power. We have the examples of Sweden, Germany or New Zealand where a participatory and conscientious population is given a free hand in facing the crisis.
On the other hand, many who come in the embrace of the politics of fear and helplessness will find easy solutions in the brutal policing system, where voluntarism is replaced by coercion or a diktat, and obvious solutions are sidelined. Perhaps, this pandemic will serve as a wake-up call: that we are a community of global citizens, that unequal societies are unsustainable, that oppression affects the unequal most severely, and that a person’s livelihood and basic health needs to be secured above all. Therein lies the redemption of the human race.
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