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The pandemic's other dangers

By Mihir S Sharma
April 26, 2020 10:16 IST
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'Every strongman leader is faced with the same opportunity: Harness the increased societal panic to amass more power,' warns Mihir S Sharma.

IMAGE: Leaders of the BRICS nations: From left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019.

The pandemic, its economic consequences, and the nature of the response it imposes upon us will upend societies and politics across the world.

That much is certain; but how they will shift are, as yet, not clear.

Or it is better to say it is uncertain: The changes, and whether they are for the better or worse, depends crucially on whether we are aware of the dangers.

Crises bring change.

After 9/11, much of the world shifted into an open-ended 'global war on terror'; imbalances in the geo-economic system were allowed to persist because they were ignored as a result; and civil liberties were restricted everywhere.

After the financial crisis of 2008, governments and central banks became more activist; anti-elitism and disdain for expertise and economics became rife; and the People's Republic of China was emboldened to challenge the liberal order.

This crisis is not like those before: There is no obvious villain, whether jihadist terrorists or financiers; and few alive have lived through the last pandemic.

Even the 1918 influenza epidemic, with which the strain of flu that originated in Wuhan can be compared in terms of its effect, came at the end of what was at that point the most devastating war in history: The dislocations, anger and decadence of the 1920s was thus assigned to the war that killed 20 million, and not the pandemic that probably killed twice as many.

We have no firm anchor for predictions.

Even so, there are some things that often happen in such crises -- and indeed, are already underway.

The first is what political scientists call the 'rally round the flag' effect: At moments of crisis, especially if it is seen as being a crisis from abroad, support rises for the domestic leadership.

IMAGE: French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Crisis and Support Centre at the French foreign ministry at the Quai D'Orsay in Paris. Photograph: Francois Mori/Pool/Reuters

Across the world, approval ratings for very different leaders have shot up.

More than 50 per cent of French respondents, by one survey, approve of the embattled liberal Emmanuel Macron.

His populist counterparts have seen similar bumps -- even Donald J Trump has seen an upswing in his approval rating.

While this is not an uncommon effect, it interacts with the remainders of past crises extremely dangerously.

The presence of the populists who spread across the world since 2008, and the opportunity to weaken civil liberties that has been infecting the air since 9/11, could both combine with the fears birthed by this pandemic in very unpleasant ways.

Every strongman leader, every populist, every nascent authoritarian and majoritarian autocrat is faced with the same opportunity: Harness the increased societal panic to amass more power.

Photograph: Alberto Lingria/Reuters

Already, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has declared a state of emergency as has Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand; Viktor Orbán of Hungary has sought to extend one, subject to his discretion alone. Orbán tried to blame the coronavirus in Hungary on Iranian students; Matteo Salvini of Italy blamed it on migrants crossing from North Africa; Donald Trump tweeted about how it reveals how we need borders (and also, presumably, beautiful walls).

Nor should we think of this in terms of merely uplifting a particular strain of leader.

When panicked, citizens agree to restrictions or intrusions they imagine may be temporary but wind up being permanent.

After 9/11, for example, wiretapping has become far too easy.

But the institutional threats to privacy and personal liberty following a pandemic can be as severe.

It is good for a government to be able to trace your movements during a public health crisis -- but what if the structures put into place now are misused for other purposes later?

What if the fear of viruses and infections becomes the excuse for permanent controls on those who travel, or even for more arbitrary decisions about access to public spaces?

IMAGE: United States President Donald J Trump, left, and Dr Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the White House. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

And then there's surveillance and privacy.

Writing in the Financial Times, Yuval Noah Hariri warned of how the pandemic might be a turning point for the Surveillance State: 'Not only because it might normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it signifies a dramatic transition from "over the skin" to "under the skin" surveillance.'

The consequences for social control are dismaying: 'The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs.'

'If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want -- be it a product or a politician.'

The pandemic itself is an unprecedented danger.

If we are not sensible, we will end up paying for our mistakes, literally and metaphorically, for a generation.

If we are not cautious, we will end up giving away hard-won rights.

And if we are not wise, we will elevate and trust those very leaders who have delayed and bungled the response.

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Mihir S Sharma
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The War Against Coronavirus

The War Against Coronavirus