Sickness is the Health of the State? Civil Liberties and Conflict during a Pandemic

Posted on April 21, 2020 By

by John Whitehead

The COVID-19 pandemic has consumed the world’s attention during these early months of 2020. The virus’ health threat, especially to older people and other vulnerable groups, is correctly the primary concern right now, with the pandemic’s economic consequences perhaps being the second greatest concern. Both these aspects of the pandemic fully deserve the attention of policymakers and the media. Other, less prominent, threats from the COVID-19 crisis are worth noting, however. Peace activists and others concerned about the power of state security agencies should pay particular attention to these other threats.

Pandemics, wars, and other crises can become occasions for governments to restrict civil liberties and increase their repressive powers over their own people. Evidence suggests some governments around the world are doing this or are using the COVID-19 pandemic to justify pre-existing repression. Further, because COVID-19 originated in China before spreading to other countries including the United States, the pandemic has aggravated already tense China-US relations. The current crisis may contribute to the growing danger of conflict between the two countries.

Repression during the Pandemic

Dramatic government responses to a global public health crisis are certainly justified. Measures to keep people at home and prevent large gatherings, produce more medical supplies, or provide relief for those in economic need are all reasonable and appropriate. However, some measures have been more ominous.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that several governments have curtailed freedom of the press since the pandemic began. Turkey and Venezuela have detained or intimidated journalists because of COVID-19-related reporting or with COVID-19 used as a pretext. Egypt and Iran have reportedly restricted press coverage of COVID-19. Honduras responded to the crisis by declaring a temporary state of emergency that allowed for limiting press freedom.

South Africa has adopted regulations that make deceptive statements about COVID-19 or the government’s response to it punishable by fines or prison. While preventing the spread of misinformation is a worthy goal, giving the government the power to punish statements is easily open to abuse. Restrictions on freedom of the press might even interfere with an adequate response to the pandemic, if, for example, journalists cannot accurately report on the number or rate of infections or other crucial information.

In the United States, the Justice Department proposed to Congress measures that would allow certain judges to suspend regular judicial procedures during emergencies. Such suspension could allow for keeping people detained without trial. While Congress is currently unlikely to adopt these measures, their proposal is a sign of how a crisis can become an occasion for limiting civil liberties.

Moreover, even without new regulations, the federal government already has broadly defined powers to check the spread of illness by stopping and detaining people traveling to or within the United States. Meanwhile, the British Parliament recently rushed through legislation in response to the pandemic that may allow police and other government officials to detain people to prevent them from spreading COVID-19.

Even less intrusive measures, such as government surveillance, that are used for the good purpose of ensuring social distancing, have their alarming side. For example, the Chinese government has installed cameras outside the homes of people under quarantine, to make sure they don’t leave. In South Korea, the government uses CCTV video, smart phone location data, and other methods to track the movements of people confirmed to have COVID-19. Indian authorities monitor airline and train reservations to check if quarantined people are traveling. European countries have used cell phone data to track people’s movements, and the European Commission has requested similar data, covering hundreds of millions of people, from telecommunications companies.

Even if such surveillance measures are defensible during the current crisis, they demonstrate the alarming scope of government powers. These powers, whether they pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic or have been adopted in response to it, presumably will not go away when the pandemic recedes. This should be cause for concern for everyone concerned with checking the national security state’s power.

As the writer Bill Wirtz comments, “No matter what legitimacy we want to ascribe to these emergency measures, we ought to recognize that they usually outlast emergencies… Emergency rules are easily implemented, yet awfully hard to get rid of. This is particularly true if the threat has no expiration date.”

US-China Tension during Pandemic

The relationship between the world’s two most powerful nations, which was hardly cordial before 2020, has not been improved by the pandemic. Officials and policymakers in each nation have blamed the other for COVID-19 or made similar provocative comments. In March, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien criticized China for its handling of the pandemic. Soon afterwards, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman insinuated that the US military was behind the virus. This claim was met by a diplomatic rebuke from the US State Department to Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, although Cui rejected the notion of US responsibility both before and after the Foreign Ministry spokesman’s claim. Meanwhile, President Trump sometimes has referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” although he has backed away from the term more recently.

In addition to this war of words, each country is putting pressure on the other’s media. In February, the US State Department imposed new requirements on Chinese state media outlets operating in the United States. The Chinese government responded by expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters from China. The United States then limited the number of visas available for Chinese state media employees. China then revoked the visas of 13 reporters for American media outlets and imposed other restrictions on such outlets.

At the grassroots, both people of Asian heritage in the United States, and Americans and other westerners in China, have faced discrimination and harassment. Asian Americans have been verbally and physically assaulted in recent months.

While hard data are not available, the number of racist incidents against Asian Americans appears to have risen. One man in Syracuse, New York, recalls someone yelling at him in a supermarket check-out line: “It’s you people who brought the disease.” One dramatic indicator was reported by a gun shop in Rockville, Maryland, a city with a large Asian American population: the number of Chinese Americans buying guns increased noticeably in early March. Meanwhile, westerners in China report increased police questioning of them and their employers, as well as restrictions on visits by non-Chinese.

Mutual hostility, at both the official and popular level, between two powerful nations is very dangerous. It has already led to episodes of people being harmed by xenophobia and if unchecked could lead to some larger conflict in the future.

Being Vigilant

Much of the world is concerned today with staying alive and healthy and preventing this terrible illness’ further spread. That is as it should be. Peace activists and others concerned about preventing war and abuses by state security forces should not lose sight of other trends, however. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of governments’ extraordinary capacity for repression, as well as how crises can escalate tensions among nations. We should promote peace and protect civil liberties so that the present situation doesn’t lead to violence and injustices that last beyond the current pandemic.

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