The insidious in Covid

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The Covid-19 novel coronavirus continues to spread, by now afflicting all continents except the Antarctic. At the time of writing global infection cases have crossed the 27 million mark, and fatalities are closing on the 9 lakh figure. In short, humanity at this moment is in a state of utter shock, disbelief, fear and consequent panic!

This is where the adverse side-effects of Covid-19 reveal themselves, whereby what is not and should not be normal is accepted to be so by a fearful mankind. The most insidious of these side-effects, perhaps even more of concern to mankind than the economic downturn, is the enormous power suddenly vested upon the State by the affliction, whereby the needs of the “individual,” including her or his liberty, have been subsumed by the needs of “society,” its safety and wellbeing.

Such subsuming, of course, is considered to be “normal” in an authoritarian regime like China. If China could attempt to contain the epidemic within Wuhan city, from which the virus is thought to have originated, placing its 11 million citizens in quarantine, and also put in lock-down cities in the Hubei Province where Wuhan is located, thereby cutting more than 50 million of its people off from the rest of the world, it had been because the Chinese people have long been conditioned to accept the unquestionable power of the State and unhesitatingly obey whatever directive it imposed.

Not surprisingly, in the absence of alternatives, the liberal nations of the Western world, as also vibrant democracies amongst developing nations like India, have had to take up the Chinese model of containment, and impose lockdowns upon their citizens. In order to do so, most of them have had to decree stringent directives which violate the basic rights of citizens. People’s movements are restricted, professional activities have been stopped and sources of livelihood taken away by the State.

The irony is that such violation of civil liberties is actually of exigent requirement at this moment if mankind is to get the better of this deadly virus and save lives. Equally ironic is the fact that the course adopted by the State in most democratic nations has the sanction of scientists and the medical fraternity. Obviously, directives for people to stay at home or shops to remain closed will not directly prevent deaths; what these are designed to do is to slow the rate of infection, thereby ensuring that health-systems are not overwhelmed by sheer number of cases and the authorities can keep a grip on the therapeutic handling of the pandemic.

In imposing lockdowns and ensuring that people are kept at home, the Governments of democracies have adopted the same autocratic methodology that China had, thereby removing the broad line which divides the two. Yet it would be a foolhardy civil rights activist who will question the legitimacy of the formers’ actions, given that these are necessary to protect the lives of people. Neither would any rational individual question the right of global leadership to assume the “Big Brother” mantle or attempt to create an Orwellian, dystopian world.

Little wonder that, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the steps a country like South Korea had taken, are not only being lauded, but also being presented as an ideal modus operandi which should be emulated. The moment the danger of a pandemic had loomed on the horizon, that nation had put into place a strict identification, monitoring and tracing mechanism whereby the movements of each of its citizens could be tracked, something akin to what China had done. In other words, the argument for surveillance and monitoring of individuals in society, thereby breaking the canons of right to privacy, have been legitimatised. Yet, given that South Korea has not only succeeded to a great extent in controlling the pandemic, but also kept its fatalities comparatively low, the necessity of such measures have been underlined!

A similar psychology is behind the reality that all of a sudden in a nation like India highhanded behaviour by the police force has won a nod of approval from a panic-stricken middle-class which, in another environment, might have unleashed a chorus of abhorrence. Ever since the imposition of the lockdown and also later the initiation of relaxation measures, the electronic media in the country has been filled with visuals of the police taking the law into their own hands, beating lockdown “violators” or making them perform sit ups with their hands clutching their ears.

No matter that such actions do not follow the due process of law and erase the distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship, the shrill exclamations of approval from television anchors perhaps reflect the approval society has greeted them with!

Yes, these are abnormal times which require abnormal measures. Unfortunately, as Bill Gates has reminded us, the current pandemic is an “era defining event” whose effect would last for years to come. Thus the danger is very real that the insidious empowerment of the State because of Covid-19 would remain operative for a long time, and one can only hope and pray that “the new normal” does not convert into “the forever normal!”

(Padma Shri Arup Kumar Dutta, a prominent social historian and writer based in Guwahati,  is the author of some 35 books, among them Kaziranga Trails and The Ahoms) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (e-mail: editor@thebillionpress.org)