The loss of life and severe human suffering around the world has prompted many leaders, from French President Emmanuel Macron to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutiérrez, to declare a “war on COVID-19”. As compelling as it may be to use war metaphors to invoke a sense of urgency, duty and togetherness, such language can be used to justify top-down control by more ruthless leaders and trade-offs between our health and our freedoms. So, while some leaders may be asking themselves, ‘how much are people willing to sacrifice to stay safe?’ – because there is nothing like a good crisis to slip in a ‘fait accompli’ – we probably should be asking ourselves, what are we all willing to live for?
In exceptional circumstances, like the COVID-19 crisis, states may use extraordinary powers in a limited and supervised manner. But today there is a worrying number of leaders who are abusing this crisis to accumulate sweeping powers under the cloak of fighting the new coronavirus, from excessive policing to information control to blanket bans on asylum seekers. It reminds me of the post-9/11 period, when governments and the private sector teamed up to deploy mass surveillance, digital identity programmes and controversial technologies to track our every move without public debate or transparency.
Even though human rights law still applies in such situations, some leaders are testing our limits when it comes to civil liberties and fundamental freedoms, because our usual checks and balances are temporarily weakened. Parliamentary oversight is limited or suspended. Mass in-person protests are out of the question. Rule of law institutions are experiencing longer delays than usual. Civil society is less able to organise and respond and journalists are unable to interact with politicians via press briefings.
The decisions leaders make during this pandemic, and especially as we exit from it, will likely impact our lives longer than the outbreak itself. So, what will happen to our democracies and civil liberties when the immediate threat from the pandemic subsides? Our societies could go down different paths, and it will inevitably differ from country to country, but three (simplified) scenarios are possible. I know which one I want to live for… but will it come to pass?
Things get better: The hopeful scenario
We could use this crisis to make things better. The outpouring of solidarity, altruism and community mobilisation, which we witnessed at the height of the pandemic, suggested that a different world, a better world, is possible. We could refuse to choose between privacy and health. We could refuse to allow our democracies to become surveillance states, selling, transferring and using our data without our knowledge.
We could push for more open societies for everyone, for societies which invest in improving the quality of our lives, our rights and freedoms, our democracy and rule of law. We could, and should, demand that governments work to restore our trust in our political, judicial and public systems and that these systems work fairly and effectively in the interests of all.
Going forward, civil society should be a driving force for the development of local communities and civic engagement and people should play a key role in making decisions which concern them. We should insist that system change be taken seriously.
Things go back to “normal”: the ‘bit-by-bit’ surveillance scenario
Things could simply go back to ‘how they were’. In this scenario, measures will be eased and emergency decrees overturned. It will appear as though things are returning to ‘normal’. The greatest risk here is that we will be so glad that fundamental freedoms are seemingly being restored that we overlook the fact that ‘normal’ was already problematic: that rights violations were already increasing across the world; that civil society space was shrinking; inequalities were soaring; that democracy was a once in every four years ‘moment’, rather than people being regularly and easily able to hold parliaments, governments and the private sector to account. Of course, a few of the surveillance techniques will inevitably remain in place, for our safety and just in case such a pandemic should re-occur or we have a ‘second wave’.
For me, this would not only be creeping surveillance … this would be a missed opportunity. Civil society and the general public have learnt lessons from this crisis about what we value and about what strengthens our societies and our solidarity with one another. We must now insist that governments live up to our values. We mustn’t be pushed back into a situation in which only rampant consumerism matters.
Things get worse: The 1984 (+36 years) scenario
How many states might consolidate newly acquired powers of control and surveillance while legislative oversight is suspended? By advancing a false dilemma between our health and our rights and freedoms, tech giants and governments would (even more) be able to track our every move, our every word, our every contact with others, our every purchase. Privacy and data protection could become a thing of the past, even in democracies, in the name of ‘the greater good’.
Even as health risks subside, people might continue to be arrested or fined for being outside during curfews or for not wearing a mask. Borders could remain closed for those deemed a “higher risk” – a measure steeped in xenophobia, ableism and ageism. It could become harder and harder for journalists and civil society to draw attention to abuses and cracks in the system due to harassment, censorship and disinformation.
Let’s not kid ourselves – this could easily come to pass.
Don’t let’s opt for the ‘return to normal’ in order to avoid the worst case scenario. Now is the time to push leaders to do better.