The world is scrambling to come to terms with the Coronavirus crisis. No news there.
Naturally, most attention has focussed on the drastic Public Health measures designed to bring the spread of the virus under control. But what of the consequences, unintended and perhaps even intended, of these measures?
The ‘For’ essay argues that the threat to Liberal Democracy posed by actions taken under cover of crisis is a real one. It urges us to be wary of the ‘black-ops’ of Disaster Capitalists who might use our natural fear of Coronavirus to institute measures that will have long-lasting, negative effects on our liberal democratic way of life. ‘Against’ argues that, when faced with a potentially existential threat, certain aspects of our freedom and privacy must temporarily be suspended. We should not be too precious about these if it means slowing, and eventually halting, the march of Coronavirus.
Yes. Quel Horror Vacui:
Power, Like Nature, Abhors a Vacuum and that Includes the Power of The People
In mid-February I watched cell phone videos of Chinese authorities rounding up suspected symptomatic citizens, dragging them kicking and screaming from their homes, forcing them into police wagons and barricading others, clearly unwilling, into apartments. As alarming as the images were, I didn’t see Covid-19 or a PRC-style surveillance system as immediate threats to my life in Ireland, or the lives of my family, in Canada.
A lot has changed in a month.
The global spread of the virus, as well as measures to contain it, have revealed the vulnerabilities of our species, the frailty of our systems, the folly of our politics and in some cases, the perversity of our priorities.
Stunned governments failed to act in time, and some citizens have failed to act as such, believing ‘it can’t happen here.’ But a crisis of intelligence could lead to a crisis of imagination and far more restrictive and permanent measures, if we don’t play our part. And while I’m all for washing hands and staying home to save our elders and immune-compromised, that’s not what I mean here. The pandemic is indeed epic, but what comes next may actually require a little moral panic.
Those of us with the luxury of time under lock-down have a responsibility to reflect on the sort of future we want, and what sacrifices we will be willing to make to achieve it. We won’t all be on the same page. Which is why it’s more important than ever to discuss, debate and listen.
And what I’d like to discuss is this: Contact tracing technologies may be opt-in for now, but faced with inevitable recurrences and other emerging novel viruses, the ongoing threat will almost certainly result in mandatory participation. While virus clearance certificates in and of themselves may not represent a concern, the personal data sharing required to make them viable will open us up to other vulnerabilities.
Considering how ineffective GDPR has been at thwarting the exploitation of behavioural data, it doesn’t take much of a leap to see how post-Covid data requirements might be abused.
Digital caste system, anyone?
As Naomi Klein laid out in The Shock Doctrine, heightened states of stress make it far more likely that we will agree to solutions that promise to preserve some semblance of the status quo, whether or not those solutions are in our best interest.
The co-morbidities of underfunded health care systems and disengagement in the political process make us particularly vulnerable to hastily drafted legislation designed ostensibly for our own safety. But recognising opportunity, as recognising the potential for additional threats, is not easy when most of us are alternately experiencing the shock of loss (of freedom, security, employment, savings, health, loved ones), or doing everything we can to avoid it.
With no contingency plans for such apparent inevitabilities, governments have been forced to improvise. Again. Plastering over the cracks with helicopter money and fiddling with interest rates may work in the short term, but what’s needed is a forensic examination of our fiscal policies, the socio-economic foundations of our culture, and what Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman describes as “zombie ideas”: debunked ideas promulgated by special interests, such as the ‘need’ for coupling corporate bailouts with austerity measures; viewing collective bargaining as a threat to competition; the need to suppress wages in order to support innovation; etcetera, etcetera.
Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum and right now our collective absence from the public sphere has made room for opportunistic interests. Previously private and in-person interactions have moved online, creating vast amounts of behavioural data that is being banked by companies with no real responsibility to the electorate. Disaster capitalists know how to spin crisis into opportunity. This time, armed with a smorgasbord of surveillance technologies and a deluge of data, it won’t be terrorists caught in the virtual cross-hairs, but you, me and everyone we know.
Yes, we need a vaccine to eliminate the threat of this epic pandemic. But we must also inoculate against the threat the remedies will pose to liberal democracy.
No. Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures: The Novel-Coronavirus Demands a Novel Response from Us All
The Coronavirus is called novel for a reason.
Some well known facts about the virus bear repeating.
It is a viral strain that has never been seen before.
It was first identified in Wuhan, China on December 8th 2019.
When it first appeared, there was no viable test for the disease and there is currently no vaccine.
In the intervening one hundred and thirteen days, it has spread with amazing speed throughout the world. There are, as of today, 932,605 confirmed cases in at least 180 countries and territories.
And it is a deadly virus. The mortality rate from Coronavirus has been estimated by The Lancet to be 1.38%, when undetected infections are taken into account, in comparison to 0.1% for influenza for example.
In the US, Coronavirus is now the No.3 most prevalent daily killer, surpassed only by cancer and heart disease and ahead of accidents, chronic lung disease, stroke and Alzheimers Disease.
In Italy the disease has killed 13,155 people, and in France 4,032 people had died as of April 1st. In the UK 2,921 people have died from the disease to date, of whom 569 died on April 1st alone.
In response, the majority of Governments have responded by putting their societies in hibernation. One third of the planet’s population is currently living in lockdown.
This situation is clearly not sustainable for any longer than a matter of weeks, yet the question remains: How is the virus to be brought under long-term control?
Bill Gates raised the possibility, even inevitability, of a global pandemic with great prescience as long ago as 2015. Now, he sees controlling this virus as requiring an extreme short-term social shut-down of eight to twelve week’s duration, in order to buy time for a mass testing programme. This has been endorsed by the WHO’s ‘Test, Test, Test’ mantra.
Successfully implemented, this strategy allows society to continue to function, as the immune return to normal life, while at the same time bringing the virus under control through the identification of those people who need to self-isolate without delay.
There will of course be privacy trade-offs to be accepted. Short-term, those found to be infected by COVID-19 are expected to give details of their entire social contact network (albeit just for the preceding two weeks) to the health authorities. In normal circumstances, this would be a gross invasion of privacy. Recently, this contact network has been largely confined to members of single households.
Longer-run, some citizens may need to accept being part of identifiable social groups of ‘at risk’ people, at least until they have developed immunity or the danger from the virus has past. While there are uncomfortable echoes of totalitarian times past in this suggestion, the identification will be more subtle in impact and is necessary for the good of all, not the persecution of a minority.
Subject to appropriate safeguards, temporary loss of privacy is a small price to pay for the elimination of a pandemic that, unchecked, threatens our very existence.