Over the past few weeks of the coronavirus crisis, democratic governments around the world have imposed stricter controls on their citizens in more places than at any other time in recent history, even during wartime. From the closure of non-essential shops and businesses to curfews and full lockdowns enforced to curb the spread of the virus, the results include economic hardship, unemployment and still a potentially very high death toll.
One other consequence is the stripping away of civil liberties and basic human rights from entire populations. Working from home if possible, but staying indoors in any case, citizens are "self-isolating" under threat of fines and imprisonment if they break government guidelines. In some places, the lockdown is total, with non-essential travel prohibited as the fight to contain the pandemic goes on.
It is interesting to note the popularity of such measures, with most citizens tending to accept that they are necessary. In the US, for example, a recent poll found that only 20 per cent opposed them. While this is understandable given the desire to slow the spread of the virus, it also suggests that a majority in almost any country will always be prepared to have their freedoms stripped away in exchange for a vague guarantee of safety and security. This has been seen countless times, most recently post-9/11 and the subsequent "war on terror". Whole societies are now monitored much more closely than before; the age of "Big Brother" is upon us.
For those who have dared to step out of their homes without good reason, there are consequences; in India, for example, people have been beaten by the police and forced to sit in strain positions as a punishment. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities have decreed that anyone who posts videos online of themselves violating the curfew will face five years in prison and a fine of 3 million Saudi Riyals, almost $800,000.
In the West, footage from France last week showed police turning out in numbers to tackle a lone man walking on the street, without giving him the time or opportunity to show his permit – a requirement in this crisis – which allows him to leave home. In Spain, police were filmed beating a man with what looked like a baseball bat because he was on the street when he shouldn't have been.
On one level, a strict approach is understandable; the priority is to stop the spread of the virus and limit the number of deaths. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that governments have expanded their controls to such an extent that the fragile facade of a free society has been stripped away. The question is, will it ever be restored?
In democracies which have long prided themselves on being immune to the ills of dictatorships, politicians are modelling themselves on the autocratic regimes which have for decades been associated with the Middle East (and with which democratic politicians are very happy to ally themselves and agree lucrative business deals). By curtailing citizens' freedom of movement, democracies are imitating countries such as Egypt and Syria, where curfews and lockdowns are commonplace. In Egypt, especially, the past decade has seen closures enforced by police and soldiers following public protests. Draconian measures are the norm.
Small but significant echoes of this are now being found in the US and Britain – two of the oldest democracies which claim to hold themselves to higher standards when it comes to human rights – where laws have been passed giving police forces greater powers of arrest and punishment.
At the moment, we can see that there is a very good reason for such measures: Covid-19. However, will the same governments be willing and able to roll back the more stringent controls when the time is right? Or will the right time always be next week, next month, next year?
There is little or no evidence that they will. Once taken away, civil liberties have rarely been reinstated voluntarily by politicians and governments. After the 9/11 attacks in the US, the Patriot Act was pushed through by President George W Bush; it imposes severe limits on individual freedoms, including personal privacy and the privacy of information and data. A decade after 9/11, instead of repealing the Act, President Barack Obama extended it, and this pattern has continued. In the current electioneering in America, almost 20 years after 9/11, the Patriot Act is again under scrutiny. Moreover, the legal principle of Habeas Corpus which necessitates that a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty has basically been thrown out in the name of national security. There are good reasons for doing so, say supporters, but the effects of such moves are felt by everyone, innocent and guilty alike. The classic anti-civil liberties argument is that if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about, but that doesn't wash in the modern world where we are all under intense scrutiny of a kind never seen outside dictatorships.
The evidence suggests strongly that when politicians and governments acquire the taste of dictatorial powers, they find them hard to relinquish. Why should they in such times, it is argued. That's fair enough; it is wrong to assume that governments conspired in the virus outbreak in order to have good reason to crack down on their citizens and expand their own power. However, it is certainly a reasonable argument to suggest that they are using the current predicament to give themselves more draconian powers to control their citizens.
It has been said by political activist Jeff Halper that "governments today are waging a 'war against the people'… the subliminal war of policing and surveillance." Is 2020 going to be the year that the democratic West regresses into Middle Eastern-style dictatorship by refusing to give up new-found powers? We will only know if and when our politicians repeal the laws that they have introduced to combat the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, Halper's book is an eye-opener of a lockdown read.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.