A Tiwari //

Refusing to recognise the validity of a repressive post-world war II law, Lord Atkin[1] observed – “Amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent”. The statement shows his faith in the robust safeguards of personal liberty that served justice even to foreigners in times of a war. What happens when the laws, indeed turn silent and the safeguards afforded to the people, succumb to authoritarian governments? The Covid-19 outbreak begs similar questions and a scrutiny of the present regimes, a ceaseless questioning of its ways of dealing with the crisis, its priorities and its relevance for the masses.

While the masses crumble under the pressures of an ailing and crisis-ridden economy, the governments are desperately covering up their mess – by altering the narrative, increasing surveillance, diverting attention and unleashing suppressive laws disguised as protective measures. The pandemic has compelled the governments to swing between denial and scapegoating. Unprepared and exposed, the ‘world leaders’ look for ways to distract their people from the real issue at hand- the incompetence of their (capitalist) governments. In short, with the illusion of development and progress razed to the ground, the governments are trying to redeem themselves to regain legitimacy. However, the economic doom and the health crisis have made such redemption nearly impossible. Contradictions stare the present system in its face. Once the paranoia subsides, the failures of the state would surface. in order to wrest power and consolidate their authority, the governments are hell bent to suppress dissent and adopt authoritarian ways to sail through this crisis.

The Human Cost Of Denial, Distraction And Scapegoating

Covid-19 was like a bolt from the blue that caught already moribund world capitalism by its neck. Instead of a robust healthcare system, the crisis was met first with denial and later with a deprived public healthcare system that had been already shown the door and divested in favour of privatization. The priorities were then clear from the very beginning. They were public image building of the leaders and covering the abysmal performance of the system and keeping it safe from the ire of the people in the name of ‘sacrosanct’ capitalist trade and economy over millions of lives. They are saying that if cure is worse than the problem, it is better to let the problem continue than do the cure. If the wheels of profit are about to stop, they can justify even a monster. Naturally, a few quarters are shamelessly peddling the theory of herd immunity in which millions are accepted to be killed that society is immunised. This is the worst level to which capitalist leaders could stoop to justify a system that kills millions per year for simple but deep-rooted reasons like hunger and malnutrition and diseases related with it.

As one can expect about India, the already rickety healthcare mechanism was but destined to collapse. It was no surprise that it took a few weeks and a virus to blow away the facade. For India, figures are the worst. She spends 1.5% of GDP on health, among the lowest in the world. Out of pocket (OOP) individual health expenditures stand at 65%, compared to a global average of 30%.  National Health Profile 2019, released in October 2019, shows India’s public expenditure on health (centre plus state) to be less than 1.3% of the GDP for many years. A study published in the British Medical Journal said that in 2011-12, 55 million Indians fell below the poverty line due to OOP expenditure. Of this, 38 million fell into poverty due to medical costs alone. 52% urban and 44% rural households rely on the private healthcare systems. Most other countries, including even the topmost capitalist-imperialist countries mirror the same shameful state of healthcare services, and some are even getting worse, like India, by making erratic tradeoff between healthcare and profit or economic gains. In 2018, the Trump administration, notwithstanding warnings by the experts, dismantled the team in charge of pandemic response – firing its leadership and disbanding the team in 2018. That the US is struggling against the virus is hardly surprising.

As If Denial Is A Rule, It Is Common To All Fascists

When the first case emerged in China, the government responded with distrust and denial. Just like the SARS crisis in 2003, the government downplayed the existence of the crisis for a month until the lockdown had to be imposed on January 23. On January 19th the Chinese government denied community transmission only to be contradicted the very next day. World leaders showed equal lack of probity worldwide- Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obradorencouraged his people to eat out at restaurants, US President Donald Trump insisted most of America could start going back to work by Easter- calling the crisis a “hoax”, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the coronavirus as “a little cold.” In India, Prime Minister and his minister continued to downplay it for almost two full months taking just few preliminary cosmetic steps worth nothing. Till 19th March the system was in slumber. That we all know. He then all on a sudden took decision to impose 3 weeklong lock down. He kept making appearance on national TV since then, with self-congratulatory monologues and lies. The unplanned lockdown has killed migrant workers, a 12 year-old being the latest victim. This is perhaps the “small price” of the lockdown that the Prime Minister was referring to. Consistently in denial about stage 3 and community spread, Indian government has been throwing scientific temper and common sense up in the air. Botching up of embarrassing data and denial are indeed a child’s play for governments that consistently lie about the GDP with a straight face!

The denial of the pandemic is eerily reminiscent of the denial surrounding the Spanish flu of 1918- a UK Doctor had claimed that “Spanish flu exists only in newspapers.” By the time reality dawned upon them, 228000 people, mostly poor, had been sacrificed to the disease. Callous statements like- “there is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed” caused the lockdowns to be lifted only to be reimposed after a spike in deaths. Donald Trump never leaves a stone unturned to make additions to the historical apathy and ideocracy of world capitalist leaders in times of crises.

The virus was unavoidable, but the same cannot be said about the havoc it caused to the masses. Taking action just two weeks before could have saved 90% of the lives in the US. If the lockdown in China were imposed 3 weeks earlier, it would have reduced the overall cases by 95%. The resources and priorities were instead diverted to fake news and scapegoating. Intentional spreading of unfounded unscientific theories had a free run- that the virus was created by the US as a bio weapon, that it was made in Chinese labs. Deflecting difficult questions and concealing incompetence is never easier than in the middle of a crisis. The only more convenient escape route is exploiting vulnerable, fearful people and their prejudices against chosen groups and minorities. Blaming the spread of the virus on minorities such as refugees, immigrants, Muslims, migrant labourers and political opponents such as the Hong Kong secessionists has replaced any meaningful inquiry into the role of the governments. In India, hashtags such as “#coronajihad”, “Markaz mayhem (Times Now)” “corona bomb (ABP)”, etc. unleashed a renewed attack on the minorities. Babita Kumari Phogat shamelessly called all Muslims “pigs”, Yogi Adityanath labelled them as “enemy of humanity” (while violating the lockdown himself). While Narendra Modi makes unconvincing calls for “unity” (only after being arm-twisted by UAE), he tacitly consents to spewing of hate and bloodlust by his party-members.

The denial, scapegoating, humiliation of minorities is not new. Waves of anti-Semitism were seen since the very outbreak of Bubonic plague. Hitler in his World War II “Table Talk,” on Typhus declared “How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew.” Jews were accused of poisoning wells and made to confess the same forcefully. US stigmatised  Haitians as carriers of HIV-AIDS in 1990s, Latin Americans as carriers of Swine flu in 2009, African Americans as carriers of Ebola virus. Entire villages were wiped away in retaliation. Pandemic-driven paranoia not just a fertile ground for alienating the marginalised from the common people it also fits perfectly into the nationalist anti-people narrative that the far-right politics relies on. The same continues in the US, the UK even today, as a tried and tested authoritarian measure of escaping accountability in the face of crisis.

Opportunism And Corruption – Fruits Of A Crisis

On the 13th of April 2020, Donald Trump (who is on a self-lauding defensive, like his Indian counterpart) proclaimed: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.” For the head of a state that has seen the worst of the pandemic, such triumphalism is damning to say the least. The economy has doomed, the number of deaths is multiplying by the clock, the state of healthcare and social security is in shambles. However, none of this stops the fascist governments around the world from ceasing the opportunity to cut the ground beneath democratic safeguards and fetters.

Indian government imposed the lockdown by an executive order under the Epidemic Disease Act and Disaster Management Act. As Constitutional law expert Gautam Bhatia explains- the unilateral executive orders such as these disproportionately discriminate along the “axis of class” and violate the right to equality and right to life (includes right to livelihood) under the Indian Constitution. Even the former Economic Advisor Shankar Acharya sounded critical of the authoritarian ways of the government.

Rule by decree suspends constitutional safeguards and begets corruption. Some are more direct- Vladimir Putin amended the Constitution to remain in power till 2036– the rest are indirect – in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban suspended the legislature and accorded himself power to ability to jail people for up to five years and to rule by decree indefinitely. The power was immediately pressed into service for museum construction, curbing the rights of transgender to change their sex, classify information on a major Chinese railway investment plan. Donald Trump’s list of executive decrees is equally alarming- he banned immigration for 60 days, approved moon-mining and commercializing asteroid resources. Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko (in power since 1994) has been dismissive of the pandemic, and has channeled the resources of the country in building a 9,000-seat arena for a military parade due to take place in May. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is similarly solidifying his position, while the crisis lasts.

Back home, the government was embroiled in MLA – grabbing in Madhya Pradesh at the time when it should have been preparing for the looming crisis. When the crisis has gripped the country, the government remains disillusioned about their priorities. Everything-ranging from a brand new Electricity Act, the Central Vista vanity project- except the health crisis appears to be a pressing, urgent priority. These are not isolated incident of corruption and lust for power, but they are definitive of the very course of future authoritarian and fascist regimes. It is not a case of botched up priorities, but of unfettered monopoly capitalist plunder of state resources, at the cost of lives, the main characteristics of a fascist state.

Media And Dissenters – Getting Rid Of The ‘Troublemakers’

Apart from the power grabbing laws, the governments are passing laws to tighten the noose around the media and political opponents. Persistent protest movements challenged the authority of governments throughout the world – from South America, to IndiaIran and Hong Kong. The failures of the governments to deal with the crisis mount – as the number of deaths increase, as the economic doom nears, and the humanitarian crisis explodes. Salvaging their political hold could be a formidable challenge. The choice between relinquishing power and crushing the dissenting voice is clear. Branding dissenters as a threat to humanity is a forte of the governments in ordinary times. With billions locked inside their homes, and the democratic cushions suspended, the government power is a bull in a China Shop.

The first hurdle is the media. In 1918, even when some US states started digging mass graves – some newspapers reported- “everything was fine”. The Times of India stated, “do not worry too much about the disease”. The media a potent tool to invade the minds of people, serve half convenient truths and distort narrative. With the advance in technology, it is stronger than it ever was. In order to serve the government’s purposes, it is imperative that media be reduced to a toothless tiger, maimed and bullied into subservience. After subtle warnings to refrain from reporting negative news about the virus, Indian government sought to impose prior censorship on media reports about coronavirus in the name of curbing panic and fake news. The Supreme Court readily absolved the Centre, shifting the blame to media. Vijay Vineet, an independent journalist reported how the Musahar community was forced to eat grass. As a result, he was charged spreading misinformation an panic. Siddharth Varadarajan, was booked for criticizing Yogi Adityanath on Twitter. Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photojournalist was booked under the repressive UAPA for “anti-national activities”.

One must remember that protest movements challenged the authority of governments throughout the world – from South America, to IndiaIran and Hong Kong. The lockdown came as a timely distraction for the people, and a golden opportunity to clampdown on the civil rights activists and dissenters. UAPA, Sedition and even the afterthought Epidemic Disease Act were generously slapped on those linked with the anti-CAA protests. Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Umar Khalid were booked under UAPA. In a matter of 24 hours, (on the 22nd of April) seven people, including three Kashmiri journalists, have been charged under UAPA and other IPC sections. Over 50 members of the Jamia Coordination Committee have been issued notice by the Delhi Police. Amit Mintoee of AMU was arrested while on a relief campaign. Harsh Mandar is being investigated for his role in inciting the protests. Arrests of Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha and Dr Kafeel Khan under terrorism laws is another blot on the country. The UP Government has had to admit the arrests of innocents in the matter, after detaining them for 10 days. Out of the more than 800 CAA-protest related arrests, about 30 were made after the lockdown. Nothing but retaliatory witch-hunt explains this urgency to hound members of these particular group; especially at a time government and Courts worldwide are decongesting prisons.

The clampdown is neither confined to the conventional dissenters and predictable targets, nor is it limited to India.  The hit-list is ever-expanding in times of crisis. Questioning the government’s response to the crisis is synonymous with slander. In Iraq, the government stripped the Reuters news agency of its license for three months after it published a story questioning official coronavirus figures. Like their Indian counterpart, Iran police attacked activists for criticising the response to the crisis. In Philippines, the head of the state wanted dissenters “shot dead”. They were confined in dog-cages, made to sit in the sun for hours. In Africa, extra-judicial killing far outnumber the deaths due to the virus.  In China, the government arrested 40 people including the whistle-blower Le Wenjiang for spreading ‘misinformation’. The backlash and media curbs increased after the death of Whistle-blower Le Wenjiang. Many online portals were removed abruptly, their creators vanished. China has further tightened control over information in other countries. Had China not withheld initial information, the crisis and its global spread would not have increased to this extent. But the incompetent governments would let millions perish before exposing themselves to scrutiny.

The governments are on their toes, innovating for the times ahead of the crisis. “Governments are legitimising tools of oppression as tools of public health”. China is not only installing tools of surveillance, but also, exporting the technology to Vietnam, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, encouraging them to shut down the internet. In a matter of time, internet, information and freedom will be priced commodities, dispensed at the mercy of the state to those willing to submit to its despotic authority. Information will be labelled as ‘panic’, propaganda as ‘information’, and dissent as ‘treason’. Reality will begin to imitate dystopian novels.

John Barry writes for New York Times: “Trust in authority disintegrated, and at its core, society is based on trust. Not knowing whom or what to believe, people also lost trust in one another. They became alienated, isolated.” He goes on to note how the Spanish flu had impacted public life- “people were afraid to eat with one another.” Instances of crumbling social ties can be seen already. People are even abandoning their families, ailing parents and children. With the ‘sacred’ blood ties loosening, the animosity towards the ‘other’ would be a spectacle like none other. The chosen victims of violence, ghettoization and ostracisation, as past pandemics have shown, would be the poor and marginalised.

Several crises before this one has seen despotic misuse of state power to accord irreversible power to despotic rulers. Unorganised violence and state measures may persist even beyond the crisis. These measures do not necessarily wither with the crisis, neither does the mistrust and fratricidal hatred. If the present crisis is an example, these tools of repression grow stronger with every subsequent crisis and technological advance. Only class agnostic diseases merit attention of the world- only they merit a solution. Hunger and poverty that gets aggravated due to these have a clear preference for the downtrodden. They are allowed to persist and proliferate. The latter and the system that produces and causes it are a bigger evil than the former. The focus of our struggle should not be mere relief or at best restoration of the status quo after the pandemic subsides, but a more fundamental and decisive structural overhaul.

[1] James Richard Atkin, a lawyer and judge of Irish Origin, who practiced in England and Wales and defended civil liberties throughout his life. After becoming a Lord Justice of Appeal, he in a case in 1920 showed his powerful disapproval of unjustified restrictions on civil liberties. He is, however, more remembered for his dissenting judgement in Liverside v Anderson, in which he unsuccessfully asserted the court’s right to question the wide discretionary powers of the World War II security services to detain aliens.

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 1/ May ’20)

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