Authoritarianism can be defined as the ruthless enforcement of exacting subservience to authority at the cost of individual liberty. Feudalism means the strict hierarchical stratification between the governing elite at the top and the governed at the bottom. Modern medicine denotes the sustained investigational inquiry, documentation, theoretical rationalisation and practical application of disease prevention mechanics, irrespective of their natural occurrence or otherwise. At the cross roads of these three intangibles, stands humanity today.
This is certainly not the world’s first pandemic in the past 100 years. There was the Spanish Flu from 1918-20 that killed 50 million people, Asian Flu of 1957 that killed 1.1 million people, Hong Kong Flu in 1968 that again killed I million people and swine flu of 2009-10 that killed 575,400 people around the world. In comparison to these pandemics, as of 3 April 54,229 people have succumbed to Covid-19 around the world. Eventually, fewer people may ultimately fall to the disease than anticipated.
Pandemics fuel authoritarianism
Why then is Covid-19 different from these pandemics? Primarily because people have taken longevity underwritten by modern medicine for granted. When modern science fails the deeply embedded feudal DNA, time-tested herd mentality of populaces automatically kicks in. Frightened people look towards authoritarian leaders to save them even if the means that they choose to employ are the most primitive, if not laughable. A good example of this is switching of all lights and lighting candles or banging spoons to plates at a given time, as suggested by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the quest to ‘live’, the governed are more than willing to trade whatever little common sense they have left.
Therein lies the greatest danger to democracies and freedom loving people around the world. It gives ‘Right wing populists’, ‘armchair fascists’, ‘over ground Maoists’ and ‘closet anarchists’ an opportunity to utilise such crises to execute power grabs.
This is what precisely has happened in Hungary. On 30 March, the Hungarian parliament gave assent to a coronavirus law that gives Prime Minister Viktor Orban the boundless right to rule by edict or ordinance in the Indian parlance. There is no sunset clause in the said law to delineate when this authority would attain quietus. The law imposes harsh, if not chilling, punishments on the exercise of free speech and on those who violate quarantine timelines. The draft legislation had drawn criticism from civil rights advocates including the Council of Europe – an international human rights organisation. However, Orban, brushing all concerns aside, went right ahead. This has generated disquiet about the fate and future of democracy itself in Hungary.
Similarly the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, during his ‘Nowruz’ speech termed the opposition as a pernicious ‘fifth column’ and warned that “during the subsistence of the virus, the rubric of a completely new set of ground rules would apply… It is possible that a state of emergency may be promulgated at some point. In that case, the sequestration of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity.”
Both these gentlemen are not ploughing a lonely furrow. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, has applauded Beijing’s response to Covid-19 crisis, ignoring the tyrannical and brutal nature of it. The waning infection rate in China coupled with the supply of Chinese assistance to countries such as Austria, Greece, Italy, and Spain is transforming the authoritarian Chinese state into ‘paragon of virtue’ conveniently absolving it of its probable culpability in the deaths of thousands for not giving sufficient advance warning to the world when it had in its possession epidemiological evidence of the fatal nature of the disease . The blaséness with which the Chinese have re-opened the wet animal markets of Wuhan, from where the outbreak ostensibly originated, underscores this reality.
Even in India, after doing precious little for 75 days, the Narendra Modi government unleashed another of its now notorious 8pm strikes (time changed to 9am till further notice) called ‘Ghar Bandhi’ on a hapless nation. The impact of this ill-conceived, poorly conceptualised and terribly implemented 21- day nationwide lockdown has been disastrous on the poor in the short term and would be catastrophic on the economy in the days ahead.
In reference to a question asked by me in Parliament, the government conceded that they had first entered into formal parleys with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the coronavirus issue as far back as 7 and 8 January.
However such public health emergencies play straight into the copy-book of the ‘authoritarian’. Let the situation linger, then exploit the fear of the unknown and finally appear as the knight in shining armour. A terrified and confused populace frightened by the spectre of invisible death falls back onto the default option — the mass behaviour of the governed willing to be led of the cliff by the Pied Pipers of feudal absolutism.
Democracy under threat
This is where modern medicine has botched up big time. It has been unable to reconcile the implications of a grave miscarriage on cutting-edge of biotechnology, genetic and genomic research, with the basic instinct of the humankind — wherein humanity is more than willing to trade hard-won fundamental freedoms over centuries for the right to just exist if things go horribly wrong. For it is still not certain that the novel coronavirus is naturally occurring.
While practices like shutting businesses, social distancing, keeping people off the streets, through curfews, proscription of gatherings are undeniably required to control the swift proliferation of the disease, however, absent from the public discourse is how to protect the poor and the vulnerable in a pandemic of this nature.
There is no conversation on re-engineering primary health systems, augmenting the health infrastructure, creating robust social-safety nets, reinvigorating institutions of global governance. These processes need to play out concurrently. The entire concentration is on coercive enforcement using the law enforcement and intelligence arms of the state.
While in the interim, these steps may succeed in mitigating the spread of Covid-19; the world will soon face another hazard. When the virus recedes, many countries will be far less democratic than they were before the March of 2020. Liberty, a natural right has been the first casualty and it will not be the last.
In times of peril, checks and balances are absent and authorities more often than not are given a free pass to augment executive power. The hazard is – what is perceived as transitory today can very soon become perpetual.
The author is a lawyer, MP and former Information and Broadcasting Minister, Government of India. Views are personal.