Freedom, in the time of corona

by Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad | Published: 01:25, Mar 26,2020 | Updated: 12:32, Mar 26,2020


A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called ‘reasons of security’ and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

Giorgio Agamben

Wuhan, the Chinese city where the global coronavirus outbreak began, is counting days for its lockdown to lift as China became successful in containing the virus, while it’s raging on and terrorising other parts of the world. But this success didn’t come out of nothing, Chinese people had to pay dearly for it.

In order to bottle up Coronavirus, Chinese government made use of extraordinary physical and virtual measures, which crippled civil liberty significantly. Besides locking down the city, the government employed a lot of virtual tools to monitor people’s every step. To be sure, surveillance was nothing new for Chinese people. But this time, the government took it to the next level. This time, it used an improved facial recognition technology that can detect elevated temperatures of a person in a crowd or flag citizens not wearing a face mask, thus taking the surveillance from ‘over the skin’ to ‘under the skin’. The government needs body temperature and blood pressure of citizens to separate healthy citizens from the diseased ones.

People let the government to intrude more on their privacy because they are afraid. Time and again, we saw that when people are afraid, the government can sell them anything in the name of security and protection. The events that justify the introduction of intrusive surveillance tools may be temporary, but the tools are here to stay.

 ‘This epidemic undoubtedly provides more reason for the government to surveil the public. I don’t think authorities will rule out keeping this up after the outbreak When we go out or stay in a hotel, we can feel a pair of eyes looking at us at any time. We are completely exposed to the monitoring of the government,’ says Wang Aizhong, an activist based in Guangzhou.

But what happens when it is not a totalitarian country like China, but a so-called democratic country? Well, democracy has its own vulnerability, such as the state of emergency or the state of exception. The state of exception, according to Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, is not a ‘state of law’ but a space without law, which allows the government to bypass the parliament and serve its purpose. It’s a favourite toy of almost all the democracies in the world.  Countries across the world make use of emergency to have their own way without the nagging and moaning of democratic processes. As for an example, in order to detect corona patients, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently used his ‘emergency decree’ to sanction a surveillance technology only reserved for fighting ‘terrorists’. He is using a weapon against his own people which was designed to fight the ‘enemies’.

Another problem with the state of the emergency is that it outlives the event that brings it in. France declared a state of emergency just after the horrifying attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 13 November 2015. The emergency lingered on and on and renewed for six times only to be replaced by an counterterrorism law which was not all that innocent.

The emergency came into existence to fight terrorism and then started doing something completely different. According to Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s researcher on France, ‘Emergency laws intended to protect the French people from the threat of terrorism are instead being used to restrict their rights to protest peacefully’.

Lockdown for coronavirus also can come in handy for governments and people in power to do their own bidding. Day before yesterday, Colombian death squads killed three activists using the lockdown.

However, these extreme measures are extremely popular with both governments and people. A couple of days ago, in a press conference, Abdun Noor Tushar, a doctor and a media personality, praised the surveillance technology of China, while criticising Bangladesh government for their lack of preparedness to deal with coronavirus, a charge which is quite true.

People from different corners of Bangladesh are urging the Bangladesh government to declare state of emergency in order to deal with coronavirus. For example, Three Supreme Court lawyers, Mohammad Shishir Monir, Asad Uddin and Jubaidur Rahman, wrote a letter to the offices of the president and the prime minister, requesting them to introduce a state of emergency in the country to prevent transmission of coronavirus.

Zonayed Saki, the chief coordinator of Ganasamhati Andolan also placed a similar demand some days ago. It stirred a heated debate on the social media, and rightly so, because the state of emergency suspends peoples’ basic rights, including right to thought and right to information. He responded to the public debate and later retracted his position opting for a public health emergency.

Why a section of the society asking for such an extreme measure? Several reasons come to mind. The first reason is rooted distrust in the capabilities and intentions of the government in general, ministers and high officials in particular. The government had a solid head start to prepare for coronavirus. Several international organisations repeatedly warned Bangladesh about its upcoming threats. But all our ministers and government officials did was bluffing.

Foreign minister Abdul Momen downplayed the gravity of the situation, saying that it’s not a deadly disease. Right in the beginning, the director of IEDCR professor Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora assured that they would have enough kits to test probable corona patients. Later people found that the government has only 1500 test kits.

‘Bangladesh is better prepared to prevent coronavirus than the developed countries’, said the information minister Dr Hasan Mahmud. But it was seen that there were no functioning thermal scanners in the airports to check the expatriates coming home from corona infected countries, at least during the early days of outbreak. They didn’t even make proper infrastructural arrangements to ensure a proper institutional quarantine. They didn’t collect personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses who are supposed to treat coronavirus, which is highly contagious and hundreds of doctors and nurses across the world already died even when they had access to PPEs.

Now, Gonoshasthaya Kendra, a leading public health organisation, is trying to produce test kits and there are many students led organisations volunteered to make PPE for doctors out of their commitment to humanity.

All that it means is that people have valid reasons to doubt the exaggerated and preposterous claims of the people representing the government.

Several speakers and preachers of Islam are making the enforcement of preventive measure even harder. Some are saying that coronavirus is a curse from Allah to punish Chinese people for their inhuman treatment of Uyghur Muslims. So, according to them, this disease won’t harm Muslims. Some are preaching that dying of corona will turn them into a martyr (Shaheed). These preachers have stronghold in the community. Influenced by them, a lot of Muslims are hell-bent on going to mosques to say prayers, a practice which is proved to have contributed to the spread of the disease and in many Muslim countries mosque gatherings are temporarily banned. However, our government doesn’t have the moral courage to ‘offend’ the religious sentiment shared by many.

Government officials themselves were reckless enough to do press conferences in heavily congested places, and doing awareness campaigns in the crowd defying health protocols in time of corona. A massive namaz-e-janaza held in Lakshmipur for the father of a local Awami League leader amid the coronavirus outbreak, defying government orders, sparked an outcry in the locality and the whole country. A civil surgeon in Brahmanbaria has arranged his daughter’s wedding with more than 300 hundred people in attendance.

In this context, it is understandable that people are requesting the government to deploy the army to force people to maintain social distancing and follow the conditions of quarantine. This is a sheer manifestation of peoples’ distrust in the government and the police.

So far, the government didn’t declare the state of emergency. But the army was deployed to help maintain the protocols of quarantine and social distancing during the outbreak of corona virus.

In an article titled, ‘The world after coronavirus’, Yuval Noah Harari showed that two models have been used to fight coronavirus so far. One is China model, which relies much on bullying and coercion.  Some days ago, a video clip went viral in China, showing that the police beating a man bound with a pole for not maintaining the conditions of quarantine. Another is a model followed by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, a model which depends on cooperation and well-informed decisions of citizens.

According to Harari, ‘Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.’

Today, we are celebrating The Independence Day of Bangladesh. This is the day when we should show respect for freedom and civil liberty. We should be vigilant not to endorse any such method as freedom is not a choice and should not be traded for anything else.


Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad is a member of Lokayoto Bidyaloy.

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