Permanent plague

Published April 13, 2020
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN every crisis is opportunity, and unprecedented crises like the coronavirus pandemic offer unprecedented opportunities. For the fascists, dictators and wannabe-fascist dictators of the world, it provides the chance to keep doing what they were doing anyway, but with greater speed and in the knowledge that — with the world distracted — their actions will not even get the nominal outrage they usually would. Essentially, the virus is acting as an accelerant for authoritarianism.

Take Hungary’s demagogue Viktor Orban who has used the opportunity to demolish what remained of Hungary’s democratic façade by weaponising the virus, or rather weaponising the fear caused by the virus, to grab power in a most ruthless way. Standing before a parliament that he controls two-thirds of, Orban gave himself unlimited powers to rule by decree — with no expiration date or oversight — all in the name of protecting Hungary from Covid-19.

Suspending all elections and referendums, Orban now has the power to jail anyone he likes for up to five years if they publicise any ‘falsehood’ about the government’s efforts to combat the virus. Naturally, it is Orban himself who will decide what that falsehood is. And, of course, since it is Orban who will himself decide when the crisis is over and these new powers are no longer needed, the smart money is on the bet that the crisis will never end.

It is going the same way in the Philippines, where the already trigger-happy Rodrigo Duterte, who famously called his country’s constitution “a scrap of paper” (honk if that sounds familiar), has also been given unlimited emergency powers to rule as he sees fit. Given his track record of jailing critics and harassing journalists well before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19, one can imagine how he will act with these sweeping new powers, when he was already abusing his existing powers.

Surveillance is rarely scaled back.

But here is the catch: on the face of it, authoritarianism seems to work, as it did in China where entire cities were shut down, severe restrictions were placed on the lives and movements of citizens and a pervasive surveillance system was repurposed to aid coronavirus containment efforts. So what is wrong with that, if it serves the burning need of our times?

The problem will lie in the future, because once accelerated, this sort of all-encompassing surveillance is rarely, if ever, scaled back. Now, facial recognition systems in China, thanks to the demands placed on them, are capable of identifying people, even if they are wearing masks, something that should come in very handy next time there are protests in Hong Kong, for example. And countries that always wanted a similar system of their own, or just have not found a way to sell it to their public, have found the perfect opportunity.

In Moscow, facial recognition systems are now in place, and QR codes may be issued to those with permission to move around. Mobile phone signal tracing provides another way to keep taps on citizens. Again, while all this is certainly needed to combat Covid-19, the smart money says it will be used to control political dissent long after the virus has come and gone.

And for the hatemongers of the world, it has not taken long to repurpose the fear about the virus into a tool to lay the groundwork for ethnic and religious ‘cleansing’ and propaganda against previously selected targets.

Take the ever-present example of India, where infections among the Tableeghi Jamaat provided a wonderful opportunity for most of the mainstream media, already chomping at the bit at the chance to inflame tensions and demonise Muslims, to launch a full campaign while ignoring other epicentres of infection. On social media, millions of Sangh supporters are once again weaponising fake news and old videos and pictures taken out of context to push the lie that Muslims are deliberately spreading coronavirus in India.

The fake news has real effects, and there are increasing reports of Muslims being attacked and hounded out of neighborhoods and villages as suspected carriers of coronavirus. So, it is business as usual, except with a greater impetus than before. Naturally, Pakistan is also on the target list with Times Now running an ‘expose’ claiming that we are sending infected persons to India via Nepal in what they are labelling a ‘bio-terror plot.’ This sounds funny until you realise that there are jokers who actually believe this and act accordingly.

As for the rising tide of fascism, there is more bad news on the horizon with warnings of a global recession the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression — the one that led to the rise of groups and ideologies that took a world war to contain. It is not all bad news, of course, and the response of countries like New Zealand offer some hope against the dying of the light, but these examples are few and far between. By and large, we should expect more of the same as we have already been seeing, but faster.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2020

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