Anam Zakaria, Specialist for Oral History and Author
The politics of emergency, the measures used to combat the emergency, can (and may) certainly transcend into the politics of the everyday, into the state of whatever form of new normalcy we may return to. States rarely give up control or recede power. Covid-19 may just give them a chance to flex their muscles, to become more emboldened, more powerful, all in the name of citizen protection.
By Anam Zakaria
How will the politics of emergency de-escalate to the politics of the everyday? Will semi-totalitarian or semi-democratic governments benefit from the fact, that entire populations quietly followed the restrictions which were imposed on them? Will the emergency become normalcy?In many ways, the current Covid-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented situation. It has thwarted our sense of normalcy, dismantled our default social practices, suspended our everyday routines, paralyzed businesses and economic activity and upended the ways in which we care for loved ones and mourn the dead. Yet in other ways, the manner in which we see some states respond to the crisis and the policies we see enforced also holds a mirror to the pre-coronavirus time; while the policies may be more extreme or rigorously executed, they don’t necessarily signal a rupture from the past. Rather, they can be seen as an extension of the measures already flirted with by states, now accelerated with more force, legitimacy and popular support.
A critical concern shared by human rights groups and analysts is the way in which digital surveillance, currently being used for contact-tracing and controlling the spread of Covid-19, may be abused by governments, particularly after the pandemic is contained. As countries resort to tracking travel history, personal location data, credit card information and use different tools - from facial recognition technologies to digital barcodes, CCTV cameras and drones - to combat the pandemic, many are now wondering about the long term impact of the novel coronavirus on citizen rights and privacy. How and for how long the data will be stored, the ways in which it will be leveraged by states, and the potential for exploiting this data to target vulnerable groups, has left many - including me - with unease. A quick look at recent history indicates that measures adopted during crises are not necessarily time-bound. The expansion of government power during an emergency isn’t necessarily rolled-back when there is a return to ‘normalcy’. The instruments, laws and tools have the potential to become institutionalized as the everyday mechanisms of governance. This may especially be the case with digital surveillance, which has already become the norm in some countries, even when there is no crisis to mitigate.
In the post 9/11 era, the world has seen an increase in citizen monitoring through the use of technology and artificial intelligence. The Patriot Act instituted in the US after the attack on the Twin Towers emboldened the state and permitted government agencies to wiretap citizens and collect phone records in the name of counterterrorism. Yet the US isn’t alone. Mapping of citizen movements and their social networks and tracking their activity both online and offline has been practiced by several other countries long before Covid-19 made news. In China, concerns regarding the widespread use of surveillance cameras and their infringement on privacy rights have been mounting as has the critique of growing digital authoritarianism in the middle east. In Pakistan too, the government and intelligence agencies have made news for surveillance excesses and for reportedly spying on its own citizens, politicians and judges. The way in which this data is used to target journalists and activists has already raised alarm. Barely two years ago, spokesperson for Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, Major General Asif Ghafoor, accused journalists of anti-state activities at a press conference, featuring a graphic which mapped out linkages between different journalists and ‘anti-state’ agents, using photographs. Pakistan has also seen an increasing crackdown on social media to curb dissent, a situation shared by other countries in the region, including Bangladesh, where citizen activity is closely monitored and intrusive surveillance measures measures are instituted. In India too, facial recognition technology has been used in recent months to identify, shame and target those protesting against the new citizenship law.
Thus, while we are likely to see new patterns and surveillance tools emerge under the pandemic, mapping citizens movements and activities are not alien concepts for many countries. What Covid-19 is likely to do, however, is give many of these measures moral cover and legitimacy. People are terrified right now; cut off from their social support systems and facing financial uncertainty, they are increasingly vulnerable. And they are turning towards governments and state institutions to protect them. The dependency on the state, on the ability of their government to acquire testing kits, ventilators and protection gear, of ramping up health care response to the growing number of patients, and to keeping them safe and protected is enormous right now. They are willing to concede to the measures executed by those in power because there is an underlying hope that it is for their own good. In fact, some citizens have also taken it upon themselves as a moral duty to help the state, reporting neighbours and fellow citizens who they find breaching the safety protocols put in place. There is in a strange way a relinquishing of control, and even of rights, At the heart of this, I believe is the power of narrative; the narrative that all measures your government is taking at this time are for your protection. And this may certainly be true.
However, the concern is regarding the excesses governments may commit under the garb of this narrative. After all, many Americans had supported the US government when it enacted the Patriot Act, believing that it was going to protect them from terrorism. Human rights excesses committed under the law got dismissed as collateral damage. We have seen the same in Pakistan where anti-terrorism laws have been misused to legitimize the arrest of those viewed as anti-state as well as to disappear activists. One might hope that after the number of infections of Covid-19 are contained and vaccines are made accessible and affordable, states may no longer have the opportunity to infringe on people’s rights under the pretense of protecting them from the pandemic. The thing with narratives though is that they can always be modified, extended, recrafted. New threats can be devised or projected, necessitating the same stringent measures used to fight real crises. The politics of emergency, the measures used to combat the emergency, can (and may) certainly transcend into the politics of the everyday, into the state of whatever form of new normalcy we may return to. States rarely give up control or recede power. Covid-19 may just give them a chance to flex their muscles, to become more emboldened, more powerful, all in the name of citizen protection.
We may not in fact even have to wait to see the repercussions of these measures in the post-Covid-19 era. As mentioned earlier, I do not see the current response of states as a rupture from the past. They are perhaps better viewed as an extension of the policies and practices already in place. In recent months and years, we have seen increasing repression and targeting of the Muslim minority in India. Unsurprisingly, as the number of Covid-19 infections spiked in India, we have also seen the response marred with the same anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia that has intensified under the incumbent BJP government. Trending as #CovidJihad or #CoronaJihad on Twitter, the virus is already being viewed through the lens of Muslim biological warfare or #BioJihad against Hindus and resulting in increasing discrimination against the already marginalized community. India, of course, will not be the only country where we see vulnerable populations bear the brunt of the pandemic. Police brutality on disempowered groups, attacks on minorities, the use of data to target journalists and to curb free speech are likely to only increase in many places.
The politics of emergency can perhaps not be disentangled so neatly from the politics of normalcy. The ways in which states respond today will hold a mirror to how they have responded in the past while paving new ways and tools of action in the future. Rather than a rupture, we may see more continuity in the years to come.