06.07.2020 | Maria Stepanova
“Have we relinquished our rights too recklessly?”
Community spirit, military language, and the search for guilt at close quarters. How does COVID-19 change Russian society; and is the curtailment of basic democratic rights really temporary? Maria Stepanova writes to us from Russia, where shortly before the publication of this article Vladimir Putin won a political victory, which allows him to hold the office of president until the year 2036.
By Maria Stepanova
The pandemic has made the already clear division in society even more obvious
I’m writing this on the seventy-ninth day of my self-isolation. I’m spending the day in my flat in Moscow: I can only leave with an electronic keyfob that entitles me to be out and about in the city, which means that – apart from walks with our dog, which are also restricted to a radius of a hundred metres around our home – I virtually never go outside anymore.
The debate about the need to rebalance between freedom and safety, are led by people who actually have a choice, who are not forced to go outside their homes.
People are using military metaphors to talk about Covid-19: They speak about a war, a battle, victory, heroism, liberation and victims.
© graphicrecording.cool There’s something tragic yet comical about that, because people are constantly using military metaphors to talk about Covid-19: they speak about a war, a battle, victory, heroism, liberation and victims. Yet in this phase, citizens are not being called to action – in fact it’s more a case of being asked to do nothing, they are asked not to fight this war that – according to the unspoken assumption – someone else is waging on our behalf. In the age of the pandemic, the most important civil virtue is social passivity – the willingness to hand over the action and responsibility to others, who are “sorting it all out”, the willingness to rely on professionals and experts, and relinquish the right to make their own decisions and judgements for the moment. Even in countries with a highly-developed social and healthcare system this strategy is not without risk, but in what they call troubled societies – and that’s the majority of them nowadays – it can lead to shocking results. The experience of life in an autocratically governed country causes people to become cautious about temporary restrictions that are introduced with no discussion or justification whatsoever.
I remain sceptical of a safety mentality, which attributes an absolute value to human life – or more precisely to literal, stark survival. For its sake we are meant to forego basic democratic rights and freedoms.
© graphicrecording.cool At this point I should probably mention that since the beginning of lockdown I have conscientiously followed even the most absurd regulations (and there really is plenty of absurdity in Moscow’s municipal government statutes). Nevertheless I remain sceptical of a safety mentality that seems to have become all-encompassing, which seems to unite people with extremely diverse political views lately. It looks to me as if there’s a pitfall in this way of thinking: it attributes an absolute value to human life – or more precisely to physical life, literal, stark survival; for its sake we are meant to forego a range of rights and freedoms that we have spent a long time taking for granted and no longer question. However, freedom of movement and freedom to gather in numbers are not abstract commodities – along with these you are giving up the right to plan your own life and to participate in public activities. The individual in a pandemic has no political will, they are held hostage by an exceptional situation with no time limit, which is not only reflected in public opinion but also in their own healthy common sense – that very same common sense that tells me to stay home.
No one can take away my right to be careless with my own health, my own body, my own life. But in a pandemic situation, my personal decision is directly associated with the survival and health of others, it’s linked with the fate of dozens, or even hundreds, of people I don’t even know. My mere existence can become a threat for them, because an asymptomatic carrier of the virus is dangerous just by the fact that she breathes. In these circumstances, isolation seems to be the only practical solution – to ensure that other people can survive, a responsible citizen has to put herself into a sort of embryonic state, hide away from people like herself, stop interacting, she needs to draw boundaries not just between countries, but also between people.
The shared misfortune seemed to have a logic of community, not an enemy – but a problem that could only be solved by combining forces.
In addition to them, members of the so-called risk group had no choice either – in other words anyone over sixty. In Russia (and not just here) those people are categorically banned from leaving the house – physical survival ranks above everything. This age discrimination disguised as concern, which has effectively robbed an entire demographic group of their capacity to act and make decisions, is fatally similar to the reasoning of robots in some old science fiction novel: to ensure that people don’t cause themselves any harm, they have to be kept under control – as strictly as possible.
The logical consequence is that I increasingly perceive myself to be a threat to society, someone who would be better off locked up. This diffuse feeling of guilt, the restriction of elementary rights and the lack of understanding of the big picture cause our self-image to blur – everyone’s a potential danger and a potential victim at the same time, everyone’s afraid for themselves and their family, yet at the same time fears harming an unknown person. For most people that’s reason enough to enter a state of inertia, at least temporarily.
It seems to be the case that hatred is a substance that generates of its own accord despite everything, as a product of uncertainty and fear – but since no clear vision of the enemy has materialised, projected on a distant horizon, people are now looking for that enemy right amongst them.
While I was writing this letter, the Kremlin announced the end of the pandemic. The motives behind it are clear. On 1st July the country is meant to be voting on the planned changes to the constitution, with the help of which Vladimir Putin could remain de facto president for his lifetime.
© graphicrecording.cool While I was writing this letter, out of the blue the Kremlin announced the end of the pandemic. As of 9th June, Moscow’s residents are allowed back out on the streets, cafés, hair salons and museums are open again, on social media they’re all cheering and discussing their holiday plans. The summery parks are full of people, with and without masks. Meanwhile the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise, and even according to official statistics the curve is only just starting to flatten. Where it will all lead, releasing the people from their imprisonment unexpectedly like this, is unclear – however the motives behind it are clear. On 1st July the country is meant to be voting on the planned changes to the constitution, with the help of which Vladimir Putin could remain de facto president for his lifetime. For this election to be possible, the polling stations need to be full, and Covid-19 needs to have been officially overcome. Then we’ll probably have to brace ourselves for a second wave of infections, and the first victims of those are likely to be the people throwing themselves back into public life today. Maybe we have been a little too reckless about relinquishing the right to make important decisions on our own.