As strongmen around the world exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to grab extraordinary powers, even democratic countries are putting unprecedented police-state measure into place in the supposed interest of a return to “normality.” In the latter category is New Zealand, where a bill has been passed giving police sweeping powers to enter homes without warrants while enforcing new “Alert Level 2” rules. The COVID-19 Public Health Response Act creates a new corps of “enforcement officers” to track social contacts among the populace and conduct raids on the premises of suspected violators. (NZH)
New Zealand’s indigenous Maori communities, or iwi, are especially expressing fears about the new law. National Iwi Chairs Forum spokesperson Rahui Papa told Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee that provisions allowing enforcement officers to enter marae (traditional dwelling compounds) without a warrant “smacks of discrimination.” (ZNH)
The twilight of real life
The private sector is also emerging as a threat to fundamental privacy rights amid the crisis. Employees now working from home are being ordered by management to install software such as Hubstaff on their personal computers so bosses can track their mouse movements and keyboard strokes, and record the webpages they visited. (NPR)
“Telecommuting” for employees and “distance learning” for students seem increasingly likely to be permanent in the “new normality.” In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested that remote learning could become a permanent part of life for students, even after the pandemic ends. “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” Cuomo said during a press briefing in New York City. “Why? With all the technology you have?” (Syracuse.com)
This is not good news for college towns like upstate New York’s Ithaca, where Mayor Svante Myrick is warning of “cataclysmic trouble” if Cornell University and Ithaca College do not reopen campuses this fall. Nearby Wells College said that, if it cannot reopen in the fall, it will likely have to close its doors permanently. (Cornell Sun, CNBC)
In California, authorities say that most of the more than 770,000 students at the state’s two main university systems aren’t likely to return to campus this fall. The California State University system, the largest in the nation, plans to cancel nearly all in-person classes through the fall semester. At the University of California, which has 10 campuses across the state, “it’s likely none of our campuses will fully re-open in fall,” a spokesperson told CNN.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has meanwhile sent an e-mail to staff, notifying employees that they will be able to continue working from home indefinitely. (Technocrunch)
Ominously, this hypertrophy of cyberspace comes just as the US Senate has passed the FREEDOM Reauthorization Act, renewing the Patriot Act‘s “Section 215” provisions that allow federal law enforcement access to online communications with approval of the secretive “FISA court,” which has been assailed by civil libertarians as a rubber stamp. A provision to protect citizens’ online activities from such warrantless surveillance failed by one vote on May 13, with Bernie Sanders shamefully abstaining. (Jurist, The Verge, Daily Beast)
The pandemic is being used to abrogate democratic norms in less insidious ways in more authoritarian countries. In Ethiopia, parliamentary elections scheduled for August were seen by the opposition as critical to the country’s tentative transition to democracy; they have now been indefinitely postponed. A state emergency in the country was extended last month, and it has already been used to detain and prosecute journalists and attorneys. (Reuters, HRW)
Poland on May 10 held a surreal “ghost election,” with the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PIS) refusing to postpone because its presidential candidate, incumbent Andrzej Duda, was slated to win. But the turn-out was nearly 0%, forcing PIS and the opposition to agree to a deal in which the supreme court will probably annul the election. (New Statesman, CNA, Politico) Riot police in Warsaw used tear-gas on May 16 against protestors demanding the government allow businesses to reopen. (Reuters)
While in the US, anti-lockdown protests have become a rallying point for the radical right, in many other countries they are being driven by extreme economic desperation. Hunger and fear of hunger has driven protests and looting in recent weeks in countries including India, South Africa and Honduras. Police forces worldwide are girding for repression as the World Food Program warns of an unprecedented crisis of hunger and food insecurity. Already, 135 million people around the world face acute food shortages, and the number could double by year’s end, according to WHO chief economist Arif Husain. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,”” Husain said. “It wasn’t a pretty picture to begin with, but this makes it truly unprecedented and uncharted territory.” (NYT)
It is clear that leaders like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are qualitatively less dangerous than leaders like Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki—or Donald Trump, hero of the stateside anti-lockdown protests. But it is also important not to have illusions about the prior. The outright COVID-denialism that Trump plays to is sinister and irrational in the extreme. But let’s not have any illusions about the machinery falling into place to contain the pandemic either. The lure of easy answers on either side is a danger to be resisted.