COVID-1984: Fear, Surveillance and Authoritarianism in the Time of the Virus

Six weeks ago, the UK went into lockdown to reduce the spread of COVID-19. While the strategy seems to be saving lives, it has come at a huge cost to our civil liberties and human rights, and raised concerns about media fearmongering, argues JS Adams.

Witnessing the panic and hysteria around the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m reminded of Daniel Dayan’s and Elihu Katz’s concept of the ‘media event, when sensational, ‘ritualised’ news reporting inspires strong emotions – positive or negative – within the public. These emotions can lead to mass-action for the sake of national camaraderie, such as when street parties are held during a royal wedding, or they can result in a hardening of anti-immigrant and racist attitudes, as with the media event of the post-911 ‘War on Terror’.

Now we’re having to contend with a barrage of shocking media images and headlines about COVID-19, with the tabloids especially to blame for ‘[stoking] fear and panic‘, argues the journalism scholar Karin Wahl-Jorgensen. The anxious climate hasn’t been helped by the government’s U-turns over ‘herd immunity’ and its errors over PPE, ventilators and testing.

The relentless media focus on virus-related suffering has been at the expense of examining a connected development that should arguably scare us more: the authorities’ carte blanche attack on our basic human rights and freedoms during this lockdown. Are we having to make an impossible choice between life and liberty, between saving the lives of some people versus preserving the age-old liberties of all people? And once the virus has gone, how many of these draconian dictates – many of them fast-tracked into law with almost no parliamentary debate – will remain to oppress us?

In Britain and across the world surveillance has been steadily increasing since 9/11. Now the authorities are using this pandemic to justify a sudden spike in Orwellian measures, such as drones deployed to spy on the population and, in the case of the Peak District police, to publicly humiliate those who misunderstand the mixed messages about the lockdown. Of new contact-tracing apps used to track the spread of COVID-19, 300 leading academics are worried that ‘some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large’. Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption goes further, warning that the UK is on a ‘hysterical slide into a police state’.

If our right to privacy is in danger then so too are our legally enshrined rights to interact socially, travel freely and protest in public. The British Institute of Human Rights has identified a further risk to the safety and freedom of vulnerable people: ‘The changes to the powers to detain under mental health legislation include removing the need for 2 doctors to sign off the sectioning of person, and allowing for the extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation. This means that people may be released into the community early (without the right support) or find themselves detained for longer than necessary.’

Our ‘new normal’ world of social distancing sometimes feels like living under a totalitarian regime dependent on mean-spirited informants. Here in Portsmouth I’ve personally witnessed people snitching on those going on a family outing and canoers paddling around the harbour. This is happening elsewhere in Britain too. And when the police do intervene, they can be aggressive, heavy-handed and authoritarian. One officer in Lancashire was caught threatening to fabricate evidence in order to put away an alleged lockdown violator.

Other official actions have been contradictory or just downright surreal. In Cheshire, law enforcers prevented multiple people from the same household shopping for non-essential items. Derbyshire Council dyed the Blue Lagoon beauty spot in Buxton with black ink to deter gatherings around it. Was this the most effective use of public servants’ time and taxpayers’ money given all the other financial and logistical challenges COVID-19 has brought with it?

In the meantime, real crimes like domestic violence are skyrocketing and panic buying has provoked the sorts of public disturbances that belong to a bygone age of rioting and thuggery, such as this ‘trolley rage’ confrontation outside a London supermarket in March 2020.

The government and those responsible for the COVID-19 media event believe that the public will consent to the building of this new dystopia because it will protect lives. But that theory is dubious. As veteran columnist and foreign correspondent Peter Hitchens argues, ‘the coronavirus is not as dangerous as claimed. Other comparable epidemics have taken place with far less fuss, and we have survived them…the risk from the coronavirus has been gravely exaggerated and…the figures of deaths have been overestimated.’ Indeed, in a number of nations where there has been no top-down government policy towards the virus, infection rates are much lower than in the UK.

Do we in Britain want to take our fingers off the ‘self-destruct’ button – as the above countries have – or will we follow other parts of the world where COVID-19 has been used as an excuse for ever greater oppression?

The mayor of Champaign, Illinois in the US now has the arbitrary power to ban the sale of alcohol, firearms and ammunition in her city. If the American right is concerned about such measures breaching the Constitution, then the American left is warning that COVID-19 is a smokescreen under which will flourish new forms of technology-led injustice. We are heading for a society, writes radical commentator Naomi Klein, ‘in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails … It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence” but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centers, content moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants, and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyperexploitation.’

In Asia we can already get a glimpse of this future nightmare. Like something out of a sci-fi film, creepy robot dogs in Singapore are harassing citizens in parks telling them to keep their social distance. ‘Talking drones’ in China have been used for the same purpose. But that’s not as serious as Iran where, under conditions of de facto martial law, soldiers have been forcibly clearing people off the streets. Other states’ responses to the virus are fuelling bigotry. India’s Hindu supremacist prime minister Narendra Modi, who is deemed culpable for a 2002 massacre of Muslims, has scapegoated that same community for COVID-19, slandering them as ‘terrorists’ who pose ‘a direct threat’ to the Hindu majority. (Distressingly, the new UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer recently appeared to endorse Modi’s violent and illegal occupation of the disputed Kashmir territory).

Hungary has passed laws allowing its ultranationalist, anti-Semitic prime minister Viktor Orbàn to rule by decree for an indefinite period. Anyone who ‘spreads misinformation’ there could be jailed for five years. Perhaps most extreme of all, Philippine president Duterte has ordered police to shoot citizens on sight if they leave their homes. This is a chilling extension of an already chilling state campaign to summarily execute drug abusers and sellers, now in its fourth year.

While it’s unlikely Britain will go as far as these regimes, the despotic, unfair and irresponsible rules we have already are here to stay until a vaccine is developed. That could take years – or never happen at all, as Boris Johnson admitted recently. And in the meantime what more damage will be done to our rights, our freedoms, our dignity, our social cohesion and our prosperity? As Hitchens notes, ‘The country is having a gigantic self-inflicted heart attack and stroke combined. Heaven knows what sort of trembling, weakened shadow of its former self it will be when this is over.’

But like the proverbial frog in slowly boiling water, we may not even notice this damage as and when it happens to us. Instead we could gradually acclimatise ourselves to a new social and political paradigm that can only be called dystopian.


Image by Peggy_Marco from Pixabay

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