Global pandemic and the rise of the all-pervasive authoritarian state

Trinanjan Chakraborty

The world is facing an unprecedented crisis. Not since the Spanish flu ravaged the globe a century ago has a medical crisis grasped the entire global population like the current novel coronavirus (CoVid19) has done presently. There have been multiple deadly viral outbreaks in recent years like SARS, MERS (both of which were also caused by coronavirus strains), Ebola and Nipahvirus. But all of these remained largely localized and did not spread across the globe at a rapid rate like the current disease. The CoVid19 epidemic broke out in the city of Wuhan in China in end November/early December. At the start of the new year, the disease was still largely viewed as a problem for China. However, in less than 90 days, it has spread to 204 countries worldwide, infecting more than 937,000 people and taken more than 47000 lives. A recent United Nations trade report has predicted a global recession due to the coronavirus pandemic leading to global income loss running into trillions of dollars.

The novel coronavirus spreads through human to human contact and has spread across the globe through travellers from China effecting primary level transmission which then spread to the infected person’s close circle (stage 2) and from them to the broader community (stage 3). Analysing the spread of the disease in multiple countries, some trends emerge:

  • Better and focussed identification and tracking of incoming international travel has helped in containing stage 1 spread. E.g. Russia. Alternatively, lack of the same has seen the situation spiral out of control. E.g. Italy
  • While incoming international travellers were mandated to be quarantined, the same has not been followed in many countries – India being a prime example. South Korea on the other hand has been diligent in ensuring that international arrivals follow the mandatory isolation without fail, resulting in South Korea being among the few nations which appear to have bucked the deadly trend of the disease so far
  • Since the CoVid19 initial symptoms don’t appear much different compared to common cold/flu and also the lengthy incubation period (2-14 days), many infected cases themselves didn’t realize they were stricken and continued normal movement, thus contributing to stage 2 and 3 transmissions. This was truer for younger people. Identifying patients, their close contacts and rigorous isolation has helped Singapore in containing the epidemic and keep death counts minimal. China also effectively used this strategy and prevented it from spreading across the country and keeping it more localized

However, analysing the response of the countries which have been more successful in containing/controlling the spread of CoVid19, one commonality is observed – Greater use of surveillance and intrusion into private lives:

  • South Korea has the one of higher proportion of debit/credit cards usage in the world (only 20% of transactions happening in cash). it also has one of the highest mobile phone ownerships globally (111.5 connections per 100 citizens). It also has one of the highest CCTV concentrations (one camera per 6.3 persons). The South Korean government used these to devise an unprecedented monitoring strategy. International arrivals, infected cases and close contacts were continuously under supervision without their own knowledge. High number of testing has been mentioned as one of the key factors for South Korea winning the battle against CoVid19 – however, even here the intense monitoring and surveillance came into play as possible exposures to infected patients were largely all identified and tested. Testing was less random and more targeted and accurate. This non-stop invasive surveillance helped South Korea achieve one of the lowest mortality rates among CoVid19 infected countries (1.7%) despite it’s close proximity to China.
  • A similar surveillance strategy also bore results in Singapore. A small city-state with a population of 5.6 million, Singapore has 86,000 CC TV cameras watching the daily movements of it’s citizens. The Singapore government used a phone app called TraceTogether – this app tracks users’ location and proximity to other people using Bluetooth technology – to alert users if they came in close contact with anyone who has tested positive or is at high risk for carrying the CoVid19. With 150 mobile connections per 100 citizens, Singapore was well placed to use technology in fighting this dreaded disease. The result is out there for all to see – without resorting to lockdowns, Singapore kept number of CoVid19 cases at 1000 with just 4 fatalities.
  • Russia, which under Vladimir Putin’s rule has repeatedly come under scrutiny for violation of privacy rights, has been reported to be using facial recognition technology to track if people expected to be in quarantine are violating the same. Media reports suggested that 1,70,000 CCTV cameras were operational in Moscow to help the Moscow police department keep a constant watch on quarantined citizens. Moscow Police reportedly used the CCTV footage to identify violators and fine them. CoVid19 patient count is less than 3000 in Russia with only 24 reported deaths.
  • Several such examples abound:
    • The government of Israel granted Shin Bet, it’s domestic spy agency emergency powers to hack citizens’ phone without warrant to collect personal data in light of the coronavirus epidemic
    • Taiwan has introduced a virtual fence which alerts local police if a citizen under quarantine leaves home
    • Poland mandated it’s citizens under quarantine to download a state sponsored app for responding to periodic requests of selfie. Closer home, the Karnataka state government also initiated a similar venture: quarantined persons were mandated to send hourly selfies every day from 7 am to 10 pm to the government app
    • “Virus detectives” in Kerala scanned CCTV footages to track movement of patients testing positive for coronavirus.
    • Some municipal corporations in Telangana have introduced an app that automatically turns on device location and requires people to periodically fill out a form and attach a selfie for submission. The selfie is tested for liveness, according to a media report

In most cases, such measures while appearing to be intrusive, have proved to be essential and in many cases, critical in countering the threat of the deadly epidemic. And yet, questions linger. Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower, in a recent interview for the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival said that such new powers invested in state agencies at the time of a crisis can have long term debilitating effects on civil liberties. In Snowden’s words:

Five years later, the coronavirus is gone, this data’s still available with them – they start looking for new things. They already know what you’re looking at the internet, they already know where your phone is moving, now they know what your heart rate is. What happens when they start to intermix these and apply artificial intelligence

As a matter of fact, with the growth of mobile telephony and phone applications, we are increasingly under surveillance without realizing. Most of the popular apps can serve the purpose of keeping a close tab on users. There are unconfirmed reports of Singapore govt. agencies using app cab user data to track corona “suspects”. According to a NYT investigative piece, in China, as soon as a user grants the app software access to personal data, a piece of the program labelled “reportInfoandLocationtoPolice” sends the person’s location, city name and a unique identification code to a state server. As more and more people embrace social media, threat to privacy keeps increasing. Only recently, a British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook’s lax safety measures and harvested millions of users’ private data without any consent. This data was used for political advertising targeting and also assisted Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

In extreme times like at present, unauthorized access to citizens’ private information is possibly required for the bigger cause. But like Edward Snowden rightly cautions, what happens when normalcy is restored is a matter of utmost concern. There is every possibility that these drastic surveillance measures become the new norm. China had adopted mass surveillance in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympic games of 2008. Yet, post the event, these became a routine for the Chinese state machinery to continuously snoop on its citizens. Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Joseph Cannataci, the UN Special Rapporteur voiced similar concerns as raised by Edward Snowden. The invasive surveillance measures in the hands of an authoritarian regime could potentially spell disaster for civil liberties in the opinion of Mr. Cannataci.

In the recent years, the world has seen the rise of totalitarian governments across nations – from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsanero, from Narendra Modi to Boris Johnson, not to count long standing ones like Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan. History is witness to the fact that such regimes have used times of crises as a window to further consolidate their powers. The rise of the most despotic ruler of modern times was kicked off by the Reichstag fire incident of 27th February 1933. Adolf Hitler took advantage and was instrumental in effecting the Reichstag Fire Decree the next day which suspended basic rights and allowed detention without trial. It was just the beginning.

Therefore, in the hands of such authoritarian leadership, intense surveillance methods could well emerge as deadly a tool as the Gestapo (Germany secret police) was for the Third Reich. Sooner or later, the world will recover from the coronavirus pandemic. But it could well pave the way for the rise of a new authoritarian state where nothing remains private any more.

The author is based in Calcutta, and currently taking a break from his 13-year long corporate career, writes about social issues. Trinanjan co-owns a blog called Indian Political Drama (ipdonline.net)

 

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