It’s certainly an irony that with police-state measures mounting worldwide to enforce lockdowns and contain COVID-19, Trump is now claiming sweeping executive power to lift lockdowns in the US in spite of the pandemic. Asserting his prerogative to override state governors and order economies open again, Trump stated April 13: “When someone is president of the United States, the authority is total.” After requisite media outcry, he later reiterated this assertion on Twitter. (NYT, The Guardian) The response in media and the Twittersphere has been to call this out as blatantly unconstitutional. While it is, of course, necessary to point out the illegitimacy of Trump’s pretended power-grab, it is also side-stepping the real threat here: of the pandemic being exploited to declare an actual “state of exception” in which constitutional restraints are suspended altogether—perhaps permanently.
The latest addition to the fast-growing list of countries that have enacted official states of emergency is Cambodia. The measure passed by National Assembly on April 10 is being decried by the opposition as unconstitutionally restricting freedom of expression, movement and assembly. (Jurist) Human Rights Watch is calling it a “recipe for dictatorship.” Even before the law was passed, criminal charges were brought against a journalist—ironically for actually quoting the words of President Hun Sen. On April 7, Sovann Rithy, director of TVFB news site, quoted on his Facebook page an excerpt from Hun Sen’s speech that day: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.” Rithy was arrested and charged wth felony “incitement.” He remains under pre-trial detention. (HRW)
Repression is being unleashed on laborers left in the lurch by lockdowns in several countries. Numerous such confrontations are being reported in India, where hundreds of thousands of impoverished migrant laborers have been left stranded as both their workplaces and cross-country transportation have been ordered closed. Thousands of migrants gathered at the railway station in Mumbai and faced off with police on May 14, demanding to be allowed to travel to their homes in the countryside. April 10 saw riots in Surat, as protesting migrants clashed with police and set cars on fire. (Reuters, Deccan Herald, FT, UN News)
Such scenes have also been seen in Peru. On April 14, migrant laborers attempting to return to their homes in Huancavelica region from Lima by bus were stopped at a National Police checkpoint in Huarochirí province. A confrontation with police troops ensued when they attempted to continue on foot past the barricades. (Gestion)
A confrontation was also reported April 11 from Pimentel, outside Peru’s northern city of Chiclayo, where army troops arrived to dig mass graves for COVID-19 dead from elsewhere in the country—and were met with protests by local residents. (RPP)
Violence was also reported April 10 from Kenya, where thousands of desperate residents surged for food aid being distributed in a poor district of Nairobi, sparking a brief stampede. Police fired tear-gas and injured several people (AP)
Over 100 arrests were made in Fiji on April 12 for breaches of the government’s restrictions on movement. (RNZ)
In Canada, the RCMP is warning citizens that they will carry out physical checks of private homes to enforce the Quarantine Act, which was invoked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month. Under the act, violators may be subject to a fine of up to $750,000 and imprisonment for up to six months. (Globe & Mail)
In New York City, a video shared on social media shows police arresting a man on a crowded subway platform—after yelling back at officers attempting to enforce “social distancing,” saying that that the platform was too congested for people to spread out safely. (Streetsblog)
A greater still long-term threat is the imposition of a totalizing surveillance state even under a post-pandemic “normality.” In a growing number of cities and states across the US, local governments are already collecting the addresses of people who test positive for COVID-19, and sharing the lists with police and first responders. (NBC)
Vox conducted a review of plans for re-opening the United States now being prepared by such institutions as the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, the left-leaning Center for American Progress, and Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics. All foresee a “digital pandemic surveillance state in which virtually every American downloads an app to their phone that geotracks their movements.” Those who come into contact with anyone later found to have COVID-19 can then be placed in “social quarantine,” enforced by GPS tracking—as is currently being done in Taiwan.
With anonymized and aggregated phone tracking now helping governments fight coronavirus, the next wave of technology will be digital contact tracing. These opt-in applications combine Bluetooth’s Relative Signal Strength Indicator, a duration timer and a masked identifier to timeline those coming into potential contact with new COVID-19 patients. Unfortunately, the apps also require a huge percentage of a country’s population to voluntarily install them to be effective.
This immediately raises the question of how long such measures will remain “opt-in” and “voluntary.”
In Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began, the economy is now starting to come back to life after more than two months of draconian lockdown. But the movement of residents is being restricted according to a color-coded system of cellphone alerts. Those with a green code have freedom of movement and may pass through the frequent police checkpoints; those with yellow are found to have been in contact with an infected person and face continued restrictions; those with a red code are deemed at high risk of being infected, and remain essentially quarantined. (AP, Reuters, New Scientist)
Federal plans for a similar system may already be seen in the US. Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert with the National Institutes of Health, said last week that US citizens may have to carry documents, dubbed “immunity cards,” to certify they are not infected with COVID-19. “This is something that’s being discussed, I think it might actually have some merit,” he told CNN April 10. (The Hill)