The Tyranny That Is Lockdown
Stay home and save lives. As easy as this possible world-saving slogan sounds on the surface, it is probably the biggest scam pulled off by the governments around the world. Because for autocrats, crisis is a chance to grab even more power.
It was 8 Pm on 25th of March, 2020, when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation with a caution. He was quick enough to sense the dangers of a new virus doing rounds in China (barring from the fact that Trump was invited to India with a grand ceremony and an impossible crowd, in spite of already proven contagious nature of COVID-19), when compared to other world leaders. It seemed as a celebration. A time to rejuvenate yourself, to cook fancy meals, to read books which have been eating dust on your bookshelf for a long time and to probably binge Netflix. Of course, this is the utopian idea of an upper-middle class society under a strict curfew. Little did India know that a bigger crisis is awaiting its doors which cannot be won by just keeping an entire country of 1.3B people in closed rooms, without planning and with a complete impromptu invitation of mere four hours.
A lot has happened in the world since the pandemic started last year in March 2020. We’ve seen large protests against racial discrimination, Presidential elections, staggering job losses across industries, worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, UK’s exit from the EU, Beirut blast and Megxit. It was largely a tumultuous year in all aspects of human and environmental life. All the dinning table discussions over these world events (400M full-time job losses, 2.7M deaths so far due to COVID-19 and many more) are quick to connect the dots to a Chinese citizen who allegedly ate a bat in Wuhan in early December, 2019. And rightly so. But, is he/she all to blame? or are we sliding away from the fact that the governments around the world have handled the pandemic in the worst possible manner.
A Wuhan-inspired lockdown strategy was followed by most of the countries which were drastically affected by the greatest health emergency of the century. The copycat nature of these strategies has inflicted a serious threat to civil liberties and fundamental freedoms even in the most fashionable democracies. In India, a recent report suggested that 32M people were pushed out of middle-class into poverty because of the pandemic. While connecting dots, we might take a little pause over India’s distressing migrant crisis at the early stage of strict nationwide lockdown imposed by the Narendra Modi government. It is estimated roughly that 40M migrants were heavily impacted by this decision. With most of the transportation at halt, millions of migrants, largely working in the informal sector, found it difficult to go back to their villages and hometowns. Most of them walked miles, with small children at their backs, with almost no food in the bucket and with very less money in their pockets. This is the sector which earns and spends on a daily basis, hence the question of savings is nowhere in the picture. Some of them who were able to reach, village authorities and the residents didn't allow them to enter, owing to the initial psychological hysteria around the disease.
Numerous industries in India have been bombarded, leaving people with lower income and increased expenditure on daily lives through their hard-earned savings. While the country is still grappling with the horrors of different phases of the lockdown, we are still witnessing torture and unnecessary closure of businesses at local levels. This in-turn invites tyranny’s younger brother, police brutality. Moreover, there is a question over political administration’s intentions over strict curfew. To put this simply, how are politicians from all parties are allowed to have thousands and lakhs of people in their rallies when citizens are also told to stay at home? Politicians are filling their pockets and propagating their agendas, while a family of 9 in the slums of Mumbai are ordered to stay in their 10x10 chawl, where social distancing is barely possible. It seems that crowds are allowed to spread the virus if it benefits the elections. There’s a huge power void which needs to be filled here. There are major questions that need to be asked, but alas! Our media is busy licking boots of their favourite politicians. This not only rises the risk of this health emergency getting out of hand, but it can also unleash the humanitarian crises in the fists of authoritarianism, which will be no less damaging than the contagious virus.
Stay home and save lives. As easy as this possible world-saving slogan sounds on the surface, it is probably the biggest scam pulled off by the governments around the world. Because for autocrats, crisis is a chance to grab even more power. Many governments who previously criticised China for locking up its citizens in the lockdown have followed the same strategies as soon as the virus caught roots in their countries. With a health pandemic out of our control, we are facing a constitutional pandemic as well. As the pandemic progressed further, we witnessed drones, citizen surveillance and other means, to monitor citizens’ whereabouts. The infamous Arogya Setu app in India is an example of a possible mass surveillance in the guise of collective health interests.
The country which is currently witnessing the largest possible protest ever in the human history against the controversial farm laws passed by the Modi government, is unable to seek the harms of an autocratic pandemic. But there's a general awakening regarding human rights violation and the dangers of lockdown in the European countries, USA and UK. Anti-lockdown protesters marched through Central London, defying police instructions to stay away due to coronavirus restrictions. Hundreds marched through the streets of Copenhagen to protest against Denmark’s restriction laws. Switzerland and Netherlands also saw agitation against the disproportionate measures taken to control the spread of the virus, when already lives and livelihoods are being lost because of strict restrictions on daily-lives of the people.
Steven Thomson, academic at the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong stated in The Journal of Law and Biosiences “As states have hastily emulated measures adopted elsewhere, in particular through the imposition of curfews, nationwide lockdowns and travel bans, and escalation of citizen surveillance, a wave of authoritarian governance has swept the globe with profound, worldwide implications for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, dignity, and autonomy.”
India, the largest democracy in the world, was recently declared as an electoral autocracy by V-Dem Institute in Sweden. The trend was shown higher after the BJP got into power in 2014 and again in 2019 with its Hindutva agenda in place. India adopted various excessive and disproportionate measures which had authoritarian undertones. Some were subtle, others mostly in full display. One small instance is when notices were affixed outside COVID-19 positive patient’s house regarding the quarantine measures. Names, phone numbers and personal details easily got leaked on the internet and on the social media of the locals. This resulted in social and psychological stigma. Many state governments also authorised the use of indelible ink for the purpose of stamping persons in home quarantine due to COVID-19.
The ethical dilemma here is that a legal intervention with tones of autocratic behaviour will always stand between collective public health and individual rights like freedom of movement, privacy and other important liberties. The main questions to be answered is — Do these disproportionate restrictions exist in a healthy balance with the desired outcome? Or are we just hovering in air because managing a crisis is one of the failed actions of political and administrative governance. Where do we draw a line between protection of necessary humanitarian laws and safe guarding public health with measures which hurt the ethical conscience?
The systemic erosion of civil rights in the name of overcoming a public health emergency may result in overall decline of public health in the long run. An authoritarian response to a biomedical pandemic is not, and never will be, a humanitarian solution.