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Why COVID-19 pandemic may change how we view individual rights

In the face of crisis, which calls for rapid response, democratic process ceases to be a virtue

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi |
March 27, 2020 6:10:55 pm
novel coronavirus pandemic, national interest, population, rights, liberty, globalisation, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Shutting down: Delhi empties out for the janata curfew (Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

In the 1940s, the nuclear bomb upended supposed eternal truths and humanity’s image of itself. The novel coronavirus pandemic may not be as drastic, but it will affect phenomena and values which appear to be absolute, like the world order and individual rights. Since the end of World War II, the US has been the world’s leading influencer, and served as the globocop since the fall of the USSR. Never before has it refused to take the lead in facing a global issue, while struggling to tackle it at home. It even persisted with sanctions against Iran, one of the worst-hit countries, when an opportunity to end the unpleasantness presented itself. Even Trump’s withdrawal of troops from overseas had not signalled so clearly the end of the Pax Americana, and the globalised world it oversaw.

Globalisation has had a good innings, dating back at least to the Silk Route, to the time when goods from Tamil Nadu routinely reached Roman households. Technology increased volumes sharply from the age of European exploration to the age of the World Trade Organisation. But now, apex international groupings like the G7 have been unable to cooperate meaningfully, and apart from bilateral aid like China supplying equipment to Italy, public health has become the business of nation-states. Except in terms of knowledge, a global pandemic is not being addressed in a globalised manner.

In facing threats, nations instinctively turn to the familiar model of war. As in war, in fighting coronavirus, national interest is paramount and the backdrop is a committed, mobilised public. Populations are being encouraged to respond for their own sake, not that of the world. The closing of borders and limitations on movement reinforce the idea of the fortress nation. As economies falter, local jobs and livelihoods, and, therefore, domestic produce and products, will come first.

In times of crisis, globalisation comes a distant second to national interest, and curbs on movement could highlight a contentious differential from the time of the Dunkel Draft — capital does not respect borders, but labour must. Many nations have developed an opposition to the free movement of people on economic grounds; now they have a public health argument, too.

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Domestically, in the face of crisis, democratic process ceases to be a virtue. Crisis calls for rapid response, setting aside the normal process of public education, followed by public discussion, followed by considered choice. There is no time for such niceties, and it is alright for governments to temporarily deny citizens certain fundamental rights — the rights to move freely, to practise a profession (most people cannot work if their establishments are shut) and to keep their information private.

Business contracts have a force majeure clause absolving parties of blame for failing to fulfill obligations due to natural disasters or “acts of God”. One is in progress, and every affected nation is exercising this clause, suspending normal obligations to citizens in favour of the imperative of containment. Citizens are also suspending the normal response of defending their autonomy. In normal times, on the ground of privacy, you would not allow a stranger to take your temperature, but now, someone who evades the test is a public enemy and susceptible to preventive custody — in hospital, of course.

Wartime measures often linger on. A previous crisis had triggered a similar surrender of privacy and freedoms — conditions governing air travel became progressively stringent from the 1970s to 2001, the period in which hijacking was perceived as a threat to the world order. Before the Palestine Liberation Organisation went on a spree in the ’70s, airport security was pretty basic, and passengers often strolled across the tarmac to their aircraft. After 9/11, to demonstrate the duty of a responsible citizen, Laura Bush insisted she be frisked, and ritualised airport security became the norm — even in the absence of known threats. Now, thanks to coronavirus, the irrational ritual of sacrificing all but the smallest bottles of fluids in security has reportedly been set aside by the US authorities, and passengers are boarding with giant bottles of hand sanitiser.


What is responsible behaviour during a crisis may become public docility if it persists after the event, and an unquestioning populace cannot be good for democracy. The surveillance deployed by governments now is the first and only line of defence against the pandemic, and phone GPS is being used to enforce home quarantine. But if people become used to surveillance, it would alter the value we put on privacy. We are already used to trading off privacy in exchange for free goods, like bargains and free email. It could seem wholly reasonable to trade off health data against securing the right to life and health — never mind if governments and corporates learn too much about us in the process. If force majeure outlasts the crisis, it becomes a problem itself.

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First published on: 27-03-2020 at 06:10:55 pm

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