The Chinese government screwed up at the beginning of the COVID 19 outbreak in Wuhan. However, after the fact of the mass public health crisis, China has been quite effective in managing and containing it. Taiwan is touted as one of the countries that really handled this whole pandemic well, it never got to be a very big problem in Taiwan (yet). These two countries approached COVID 19 with similar fashion: clamp down on civil liberties.
Today Western Europe and the United States are acting or considering acting in similar fashion which would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. In fact a number of American citizens believe their government is not being decisive enough (aggressive enough) against the virus.
The same can be said of Zimbabwe. The leadership of the main opposition party is calling for a complete lockdown of the country. This is the type of stuff that is labelled with a very nasty word: draconian.
Taiwan was one of the first countries to start screening all visitors from China. They closed schools and other facilities earlier than anyone else and remarkably, schools have reopened now. Why? Acting fast allows you to contain the situation quicker and at lesser cost than waiting until the storm is underway.
One of the things Taiwan has been good at and still is in this crisis is contact tracing. They are not testing as many people per capita as China and other countries but they are rigorously following up on any possible contacts.
They are using mobile phone tracking to enforce quarantine on people at risk of having come in contact with the virus and there are heavy penalties when quarantine directives are not observed. The health information of citizens and residents is linked to their travel history and this has been useful in their picking up possible infections.
All these ‘tools’ are considered quite invasive though and an infringement on civil liberties. However, the greater good is clearly being served isn’t it? One of the most liberal democratic nations: the UK is using mobile phone tracking to impose quarantines now.
There is an unmistakable change in the air around the value of a more autocratic form of government in times of crisis. This has always been the case in wars and such and it is at the core of the origins of the word dictator itself.
Julius Caesar for example was pronounced dictator by the Roman senate and he was quite a popular figure in the Roman city state. The sad thing though is that when dictatorial powers were given to be temporary, those powers were scarcely given back.
Governments by nature always want more power, not less. When they are given such power in emergencies like the one we are in right now they will try to find ways to keep such.
The interesting thing though is that this time whenever this big world problem goes away, citizens from all kinds of countries and political structure will probably have changed views about whether it’s such a bad idea to have a centralised state, mass surveillance and privacy invasions.
The European Union has been at the forefront of the ‘privacy and data protection gospel’ leading to laws that in my view missed the bigger picture like the (in)famous GDPR. Today the EU is rethinking their approach to some of these problems of the digital world.
A few days ago the block was questioning whether their stance that Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms in Europe should only be fed with data from Europe. The problem with that is that with AI the more data you have at your disposal the better your technology will be. In big health emergencies like these you will always wish you had more data and not less.
In Zimbabwe we have always flinched when President Emmerson Mnangagwa or Mugabe before him used the vague presidential temporary powers law. Today, when he announces anything we don’t rush to the legal books to see if the pronouncements are consistent with our laws. A good number of us actually believe his measures are not going far enough.
Far enough towards what? Far enough in curtailing our freedom of movement and freedom of association. If we are told today that mobile phone tracking will be done to effect quarantines and such we will probably consider it a necessary evil right?
Genies and boxes
Once use of excessive governance powers has been acceptable in an instance, history tells us that those that wield it will consider it acceptable to use them whenever they will. Once the genie has come out of the lamp it doesn’t go back in, not so simple. The world that will remain after COVID 19 could be quite a different one from the one before the pandemic.
It would be a world that would have witnessed a validation of the Chinese police state. The United States is struggling with COVID 19, they now have the highest number of cases in the world. It seems the turn from this trajectory will come if they implement China style lockdowns and policing. Italy (another Western democracy) has been arguably the hardest hit by this pandemic. They are starting to see statics turn towards a positive direction after also going full China.
These are not easily reversible imprints on our global consciousness. In Zimbabwe some have called on ZANU PF (not even the government) to use the measures of POSA, an infamous law that restricts the freedom of association.
So do we prioritise freedoms at the expense of our lives and stop the genie from coming out? Obviously not! That is the conundrum. We don’t have the privilege of choice. Perhaps if we go into this with a full understanding of the consequences we will be able to build in safeguards.
All this is hard to do whilst the world is up in smock. How can we even think about political organisation and philosophical ideals?