When Pandemic intersects authoritarian impulses (By Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
21 April 2020 22:22 IST

Hard situations always bring bad laws. As Corona virus ravaged Wuhan, Chinese government used every weapon in it’s  arsenal from shutting down Wuhan, isolating  the infected  and monitoring their movement to control the outbreak.  .China  is a authoritarian country and need not look at the checks and balances  of any of their decision. Singapore another autocratic state acted with the same zeal. They succeeded. South Korea a centralized democracy did not shutdown but succeeded by testing and quarantining the infected.

 Almost half the world is now engulfed by the deadly virus. Countries  round the world has become war zones. Crisis always  bring citizens together as they stand united to take   it on. It is time of national solidarity, When twin towers   were brought down on September 11th 2001, USA united with  war on terror and brought in a law  called the Patriot Act which the citizens would not have accepted in normal times. The USA became world’s most expansive surveillance state. The country accepted that.

To fight Covid 19, countries have made a health calamity into into a security issue by a series of repressive measures. Shutting down industries, enforcing physical distancing, banning large gatherings , n movement of persons and vehicles   to break the transmission chain . The WHO and experts have recommended these measures.

 The Pandemic is a god sent opportunity for autocrats. Victor Orban, the Hungarian PM got the parliament to arrogate  to him to rule by decree by suspending the existing law, In Israel, the PM Netanyahu has used the emergent situation to postpone his corruption trial and blocked parliament anf got extraordinary domestic surveillance powers . Azarbaijan president has used this to attack the opposition. All liberal democracies like UK, Germany, Italy and Austria have gone for lockdown and taken measures to monitor citizens by tracking their movement through cell data.   South Korea used this method to enforce  quarantining the affected- something  which no liberal democracies would tolerate in normal times, It is feared that Donald Trump could declare emergency which would give him powers to deploy military for domestic purpose. It is also feared that the November elections would be postponed. Jordan has ordered closure of all print news outlets. Philippines declared a state of calamity for six months and suspended public life

Various countries have tried to gag the media and social media issuing warnings and threatening with heavy penalty. The government of India even  sought Supreme Court’s approval to bring in some sort of censorship on the media. Transparency and sharing of information has always been a weak point  of    states with authoritarian tendencies.

India    did not require emergency powers. In .There were already legal structures in place   The colonial Epidemic Act of 1897 was brought in as people refused to be quarantined, They did not mind death and infecting  others. Isolation was seen as worse than death due to the stigma attached to it.. A law was required to give powers of search, inspection of persons and property and take any measures to  deal with outbreak of the epidemic. The law gave power to the plague commissioner to do virtually anything that needed to be done That included even power to bring down  buildings and physically inspect people to find out whether they are infected so as to isolate them. The disaster Management Act of 2005 is a clear carte blanche to the executive. It empowers the executive with a battery of powers to combat  disasters including restricting or controlling traffic and people’s  movement and deployment of military forces. Both the laws give unprecedented  powers  to the executive and the law  enforcing agencies. This is one aspect that could be behind the states   pushing for extension of the lockdown period.

Considering the exponential rate at which the virus has hit Europe and USA and taking into consideration our poor health infrastructure , the citizenry  accepted to be foot soldiers of the commander in chief in these distress times, though the 21 days lockdown came in a totally irresponsible and unplanned manner with a three and half hours notice. The country accepted the ruthless shutdown as the only way to halt the corona march. In fact in Goa there was acceptance in certain sections of a  total lockdown with even the groceries , milk booths and other essential items being shut off .The deployment of Central paramilitary forces to deal with the hungry and poor  in search of food was even welcomed.

The fear is that the infringement of civil liberties which is  seen as  a war time measure , could continue peace time with the pandemic reshaping political systems by solidifying  of autocratic tendencies and destroying democracies. The United Nations is alert of that fact and certain UN affiliated experts  have already warned that emergency measures over the pandemic should not be used by governments for political ends. They said “ while we recognize the severity of current health crises and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind the states that any emergency responses to the corona virus must be proportionate , necessary and non discriminatory.” Basically a sledgehammer is not required to crack a nut

The   problem is that the pandemic is being fought  is at a time   when there is decline of democracy around the globe. There could be   further decline as history shows that emergency violations of civil liberties are not easily rolled back. It is crucial that there is self restraint by liberal democracies and vigilance by citizens. “Those who sacrifice individual liberty to secure temporary safety deserve neither” said  Benjamin Franklin. Wonder what he would have said in times like this!

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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