Covid-19: Pandemic To Panopticon

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has forced policymakers, analysts, planners, commentators and the population at large to imagine a world in the post-Covid-19 period. Some analysts deem Covid-19 as a cataclysmic event that has shaken the very foundations of the neoliberal order. Hence, a lot of thinking is being devoted to imagine possible new realities of the world without neoliberalism. Many have already pronounced the death of this hitherto nearly universal ideology and started proposing their own worldviews as its replacement. Others insist on identifying what went wrong with the “old” system and rectifying those mistakes.

While a search for a radically new worldview may not be completely unfounded, the overwhelming response by most states seems to suggest a move in the completely opposite direction. In other words, the pandemic has helped resurrect old systems of surveillance and punishment. What’s more, states with extremely divergent, even antithetical, ideologies are united in adopting these systems. It seems as if the Orwellian Big Brother has arrived.

Let us start with China, where the coronavirus first broke out and from where it spread across the globe. Autocratic measures such as the control of information, surveillance and lockdown by China are being touted as a successful model to fight the disease. A large part of the rest of the world seems bent on following this model.

The success of China has given birth to two opposite views. The proponents of the measures taken by China argue that unbridled and uncontrolled information begets rumours and conspiracy theories. Thus, it is important to treat the flow of information during the pandemic differently. In other words, they seem to be of the view that free access to information is a practice of normal times, whereas, in post-normal times, information will have to be handled differently.

The opponents of this view see China’s control of information and censorship of free speech as the primary reason why the coronavirus epidemic turned into a global pandemic in the first place. The case of Li Wenliang is a clear example of this. Dr Wenliang was the first Chinese doctor to discover the virus and to try to issue the first warning about it. However, he was brutally silenced and censored by Chinese authorities. Doctor Wenliang later contracted the coronavirus himself and died from it.

There are several precedents from history that one can find to look at the patterns of control and surveillance. One such example is that of the measures taken at the end of the seventeenth century when a plague appeared in a European town, as described by Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death.

The report encapsulates the situation in these words, “Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment. Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere”.

While the approach to lockdown employed today appears to be the same as employed over 300 years ago, there is a crucial difference in terms of technology. In the pre-modern era, the technologies of control were physical and surveillance was “horizontal” i.e. by the government personnel spreading across the streets of a town to curb the movement of people. In the 21st century, methods of control are more covert, facilitated by the invention of things such as closed-circuit television, weather satellites and drones.

The rapidity with which technology is developing is making computer algorithms know us better than ourselves. “Big Brother” of the modern era has the capacity and resources to analyse us to the bone, and to use this analysis in predicting as well as controlling our behavior.

With states across the world developing astounding technological prowess, it is likely that Covid-19 will cause a regime of surveillance to become a norm in the world, with deeper and wider penetration into public life. Whereas such intrusive methods would have been unthinkable in pre-Covid times, now they are increasingly gaining tacit approval from people themselves. In Yuval Noah Hariri’s eery phrase, Covid has led to shift from “over the skin” surveillance to “under the skin” surveillance. Whereas earlier, governments surveilled what you clicked on on your smartphone, now it seeks to determine your body temperature and blood pressure from your touch, she writes.

Today, several countries (for example, Pakistan and Israel) are employing hitherto military and security technologies to track Covid-19 patients. There is widespread fear that this will only be a reason for the respective countries and institutions to increase their means of monitoring, controlling and subjugation of population – as these tools were originally developed to do for suspicious elements.

Models of restricted free speech and access to media, together with unbridled surveillance of the population, only opens doors for totalitarianism. As the example of Dr Wenliang of China shows, these methods can also be simply ineffective even for the purpose they were apparently put in place.

There are lessons for us to learn from history. Paradoxically, one of history’s constant lessons is that ruling classes hardly ever learn from their mistakes, whereas the citizenry becomes more and more complacent, often as a result of governing tactics used by governments. There is a need to recognise the various heads of the hydra which forms the current world order. Coronavirus may be one of these heads, but it can no longer be accepted that it is the only one.

The author is a social scientist and columnist. He can be reached @azizalidad