Social distancing and the whole new assortment of measures such as those regarding surveillance by governments are essential to beating this wretched germ, but we cannot deny how these inevitable new powers handed over to the state may run the risk of leaving our democratic way of life in a more vulnerable place.
As much as it is your responsibility as a citizen to obey the health authority with vigilance, it is also your responsibility as a citizen, especially in the age of social media, to stand firm and ready to scrutinise and hold to account not only governments, but also the plainly irresponsible people who spread fake news, and along with it spread panic and uncertainty.
The line between preventing spread and intruding on our privacy can be a fine one. Is the use of drone technology for surveillance crossing the line? Are systems using the GPS location of citizens’ smartphones as is done in Asian countries such as South Korea crossing the line? Although that may be debatable, the complete shutdown of democracy in Hungary surely isn’t. Perhaps, what concerns me most is how the media may, to take a page out of Noam Chomsky’s book, be manufacturing our consent to actions that may otherwise have been unacceptable, by feeding us the ‘its like a war’ rhetoric. Pandemics, as you may have realised last Easter weekend, as you indulged in a generous slice of figolla, are very different to wars. Pandemics do not justify the silencing of democratic institutions, nor the laying of the foundations of a police-state.
For that matter, to turn to the local scene, even in times of war, there is simply no excuse to reject people in need who are out at sea, and send them back to a failed state, were torture, rape, and murder may be expecting them. In Malta, more people have died of this tragedy than of the virus itself. It’s in moments like these were I find myself perplexed and dumbfounded by the EU-27’s gross solidarity deficit, and for that matter it’s sheer negligence in leaving both Italy and most especially Malta to fend for themselves. Not only failing in the short term, but also in the long term, as they leave the Foreign Minister’s proposal for a humanitarian mission to Libya fall on deaf ears. A ray of light can be seen in the recent developments in the European Parliament, including a call for a ‘Coronavirus Solidarity Fund’. Clearly showing how the most democratic organ of the EU, is also the most focused towards collective progress and for that matter showing true solidarity. This being in stark opposition to the national governments, particularly of the northern states.
If anything, this virus is exposing the state of today’s system for what it is. What we need to ensure that happens is that this pandemic does not turn into another post-9/11 surveillance bonanza, and demand that no new intrusive powers of surveillance are granted to governments, or worse still, to multinational corporations. We need to urge policymakers to create more organised, legal protections for our privacy which are truly relevant to the digital age. On top of this, we need to have in black and white exactly what level of surveillance the state and big tech is allowed to possess during not only normal circumstances, but also under extraordinary ones like this. Let’s turn this pandemic into an opportunity to forge a new deal for citizen’s privacy, a deal were the lines are drawn, not only for times of pandemics or wars, but for all time.
P.S. As we know too well, cyberspace knows not the boundaries of the nation-state, the more universal the legislation the better. Europe would be a terrific start.
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