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surveillance and covid 19

COVID-19 and the Surveillance State

The COVID-19 crisis has created a new normal – empty streets, closed cafes and restaurants, sealed borders, restricted travel, and virtualised human interactions – a world paralysed at its own pace.

Coronavirus has engulfed everyone’s lives with the fear of the unknown or the unforeseeable. People, in billions, have been forced to stay at home. Young and the old alike, complaining of fever and dry cough, have filled hospitals in thousands.

Citizens, at least the privileged, lined up in supermarkets to stock up on groceries and toilet paper. Meanwhile, the rest complained, “We will die – either from the virus or hunger”. In a globalised society, the pandemic has produced a new form of self-organisation that isolates the self from others to sustain itself.

The pandemic has made uncertainty a new normal. The novel Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The virus has since spread like wildfire across the globe.

Over two million people worldwide have contracted the virus, and tens of thousands have died.

Background: The Outbreak of COVID-19

Initially, China had covered up the extent of the spread of the Coronavirus outbreak for several weeks in December. The Chinese Government denied all the initial evidence and suppressed those warned of it, most tragically, the Wuhan physician Dr Li Wenliang.

The global response to the crisis has been too little, too late, and too laggard. The nation-states have been seeking to look inwards. As a result, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be nowhere in sight of control.

Pandemics allow nation-states to seek to control the human population. They enable the rise of a big state that takes tough measures to survive.

Three such features of a pandemic state are surveillance, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. Countries, both democratic and non-democratic, have been using technology to track the movement of their citizens. Surveillance has become a new tool to control the spread of the pandemic.

Nation-states have forced their citizens to follow social-distancing norms while also punishing those not adhering to them.

The Use of Surveillance Technology During COVID-19

Surveillance technologies have been used to track where people are, where they have been, and their recovery status. This data is further used to determine the extent of the spread of the disease and then track those who have been in contact with those infected by the virus. Israel has authorised the internal security agency to tap its citizens’ secret trove of cellular data.

South Korea and other East Asian countries have had their initial success in digital contact tracing using mobile applications. Many countries across the globe have been following suit. States have been exercising power to monitor people using technology.

Several global leaders have been using the pandemic as an opportunity to suppress their population, resulting in an Orwellian State – Big Brother is Watching You.

The Rise of Authoritarianism during COVID-19

In response to the crisis, world autocrats have employed propaganda, suppressed political rivals, and expanded political powers. As an old maxim goes, “Never let a good famine go to waste”, many world leaders have been successful in their power grabs.

The Pandemic has enabled the leaders to legitimise the use of executive powers, detain people, and infringe on the freedom of expression. Hungary has passed a new law granting Prime Minister Victor Orban the power to suspend existing laws.

An indefinite State of Emergency has been declared in Hungary, curtailing the freedom of expression and penalising those breaking quarantine orders.

The Philippines legislature has granted President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers. And the President has imposed shoot-to-kill orders for those not following the quarantine norms. In Egypt, chemical warfare troops, clad in the protective suit, have been deployed to disinfect the suburbs.

The Pandemic has allowed Governments to ban public assemblies, quarantine, close borders, limit trade, impose restrictions on movement, and censor media.

History also suggests that the state does not give up on all the ground it has secured after a crisis. Thus, it is imperative to speculate about the state we would live in after the crisis.

Rise of Xenophobia during the COVID-19 Outbreak

There has also been a rise in the process of othering with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of taking the opportunity to embrace and support one another, the nation-states have become the spouts of xenophobia. Even as the Coronavirus spread across the globe, reports of racism towards East Asians have been on the rise in Western democracies.

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has repeatedly referred to the Coronavirus as a ‘Chinese Virus’. Incidents of racially motivated crimes have risen throughout the United States since the virus outbreak. Xenophobia has become a petty tool for governments and citizens to colour responses concerning the pandemic.

Media also plays an important role in the creation of ‘the other’ as a contrast to the self. Xenophobia systematically enables the social stigma towards others in society. When a pandemic is regionalised and stigmatised, humanity will suffer a sad demise.

Towards a post-COVID society

Scholars across the globe have given their verdict on a post-pandemic world, with many affirming that the “world will be less open, prosperous, and free”.

Some scholars believe China will rise as a new global power; others have written an obituary to hyper-globalisation. Climate change, for good, will gain limelight in a post-pandemic world. It is interesting to see how the crisis pans out over the period to provide an affirmative answer.

However, such a State will not be suitable for a post-crisis era. We need to keep in check the power of Governments in a post-pandemic society.

United Nations, as an agency, has failed to provide a collective global response. Its decline seems evident more than ever. It should not mean the demise of ‘global governance’. We need institutions with a robust and structured form of global governance mechanisms.

A world government with structured power-sharing with nation-states would be a sophisticated alternative to human society. Such a government would require enforceable jurisdiction on issues threatening humanity, such as poverty, health, terrorism, war, and climate change.

We need cooperation between countries more than ever. The pandemic will not end for anyone until it ends for everyone.

Disclaimer: The article was first published with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) and KhabarHub.

Cover Photo by Josh Shaw on Unsplash

8 thoughts on “COVID-19 and the Surveillance State”

  1. Thanks for the thoughts – an interesting post.
    There are many factors involved here, but in each region you can see where those in power (or wishing to be there) have grabbed hold of what they can. Eventually, local populations will correct this (at least in societies like the U.S., where we aren’t in the habit of having our rights curtailed.)
    The United Nations has never been a tool for human rights – it’s a gathering place for nations to attempt civil discourse and occasionally cooperate on mutually beneficial projects. But as long as a hefty percentage of the members are opressing their own people, this is not a vehicle that should ever be given authority over even one nation. The most legitimate government will always be local.

  2. The world is collectively in a fragile state. All people under different government thumb. All hearts of the people wait anxiously hoping for the return of what was, many blind to the idea that it won’t ever be again. My heart grieves for the world. For the losses, for the unneccessary quarantines when there were. The business loss, the misleading causes of death which separates grieving from needed family and friends. The emotional depravity this physical virus has caused leaves the world in a much worse state than most people could ever fathom on the outside looking in. That’s a blog I’m working on I haven’t finished. I’ve written light hearted lately because my heart is in lament for the world….thank you for this article. I appreciate it.

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