SHIRLEY DE VILLIERS: Beware the iron fist of our political overlords
The danger lies in rolling the state back once the crisis has passed
“Don’t waste the coronavirus crisis.” It’s the mantra of our time.
Shakespeare, we’re told, penned King Lear in the depths of the bubonic plague. Isaac Newton, no doubt obsessed with what snack may be on hand, discovered gravity at the same time. Expressionist painter Edvard Munch recreated his own influenza hellscape in his 1919 selfie Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu.
Today, our quarantine ambitions are a little simpler, if happier. Make your own sour-bread starter – pictured, for posterity. Sign up for an online course – pictured, for posterity. Swallow a raw egg, followed by a sugar and brandy chaser – pictured, of course, for posterity. Become an artisanal brewer; learn a language; produce a magnum opus in epidemiology …
Admittedly, some of this has been necessitated by deprivation. Sourcing brandy is a challenge – a feat of ingenuity even – given Prohibition.
More heartening is that we’re no less ambitious when it comes to our leaders. This, we say, is the opportunity to rethink social order, to reset our relationship with the environment, to abolish the ogre of excessive consumption. And there’s merit in some of this.
But in SA, at least, our political overlords are seizing the moment elsewhere.
In the past two weeks, city authorities have evicted residents and demolished shacks in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha and in Lakeview, Joburg. (See Daily Maverick’s piece here, and New Frame’s on Lakeview here – and be sure to check out the pictures and drone footage by James Oatway.)
It’s a cruel irony that at precisely the time when people are most in need of a place to call home, the obliviously officious authorities have rendered them homeless. There’s a similar short-sightedness in forcing people to “self-isolate” in overcrowded shacks, and in environments where they have to share communal taps and toilets – and then almost station an armed guard at the door to prevent them finding food.
Of course, it’s not all bad news coming out of government. Transport minister Fikile Mbalula tells us the Easter death toll was down by a miraculous 82%. And police minister Bheki Cele proclaims his alcohol ban a resounding success, with crime down dramatically against the same period last year.
For Cele the drop in contact crime is all about the alcohol ban – strengthening his case for an even longer dry season. He sees less relevance in the reduction in actual physical contact due to the lockdown.
But Cele’s single-mindedness – and mandate creep – is cause for concern. As is the announcement that pretty much the entire defence force – including auxiliary services and reservists – is to be mobilised in the fight against Covid-19.
As much as some may be prepared to sacrifice a few freedoms on the altar of security – witness the shouty debates about whether the ubiquitous surveillance cameras on the streets of Joburg amount to guardian or prison guard – the danger lies in rolling the state back once the crisis has passed.
While in SA, the immediate manifestation of the creep of the state is in the armed forces – and the parliamentary jazz-handing used to explain away any breach of basic human rights – the issues are manifold.
For example: to what extent should governments be able to tap into the GPS data on the phones of Covid-19 patients to facilitate contact tracing? Or access credit card records to trace their movements? And do the benefits that accrue outweigh the violation of a fundamental right?
It’s a tricky balance, as Mike Giglio makes clear in this article in The Atlantic, where he considers the effect 9/11 had on attitudes to privacy.
It’s a fascinating – if frightening – read on national security, intelligence and the trade-offs we are prepared to make to feel safe – and those we have already made in the interests of commerce.
Freedom House analyst Allie Funk and research associate Isabel Linzer look at the issue more broadly, in this piece on The Bulwark.
Besides the issue of surveillance and information-gathering, they show how governments around the world are taking advantage of the uncertainty created by the crisis to limit the free flow of information, suppress dissent and undermine democratic processes.
While they acknowledge that certain freedoms may need to be restricted to curb the spread of the virus, “any such measure must be transparent, implemented with democratic oversight, and necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim”.
It is up to leaders, human rights experts and public health officials, they say, to be “mindful of some governments’ propensity to misuse emergencies for political gain. Working together, they should clearly indicate when restrictions are not scientifically valid, and push back against excessive responses across the democratic spectrum.”
It’s a hugely important issue – going to the heart of the social order.
Democracy around the world was in retreat last year, as measured by Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. The coronavirus will likely only add to the incoming tide of populism and authoritarianism, as this analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace makes clear.
It raises concerns about the effect on electoral politics, civil-military relations and the shrinking of the room for civil society. The authors highlight other concerns too: how the virus could strain the social fabric, for example, and open new avenues for corruption. At the same time, they note a few exciting possibilities: new forms of activism, and the possibility of deepening democracy at a more decentralised, community level.
These aren’t points to idly ponder in the coming weeks, as we seek solace in a bottle of home-brewed pineapple beer. Freedoms are hard-won and easily lost. Now, more than ever, is the time to hold our governments to account.
*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM
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