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Emergency COVID-19 Laws May Become Permanent Features of the Security Landscape

Pandemic containment is giving states an excuse to extend modes of surveillance and control indefinitely.

Dutch police officers fly a drone above the seafront of The Hague beach to warn people to keep their distance to others amid the COVID-19 pandemic on April 4, 2020, in The Hague, The Netherlands.

Part of the Series

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the world, so too do radical new security measures implemented by governments in response to the global crisis. Ruling by decree, closing borders to refugees and instituting sweeping powers of detention and surveillance: In the context of the current panic, these policies may seem appropriate to some, their extremism justified by the extreme times in which we now live.

But amid this frenetic pace of change, key questions are being largely overlooked: Shouldn’t governments now become more accountable, not less? Haven’t countries with some of the tightest border security measures also been some of the most ravaged by the pandemic? Do police really need more powers, when the ones they already possess have too often been used to inflict violence with impunity?

What we are seeing, in country after country, is a securitizing “shock doctrine” in action, with authoritarian and liberal governments alike using the COVID-19 emergency to justify policies that would never be accepted in ordinary times.

This COVID-19 security creep is not only legal and technological, but psychological as well — extending the omnipresent fear inculcated over the last 20 years by the “war on terror” to the “war on COVID.” This time, however, the “enemy within” lurks not in supposed terrorist cells but in the literal, biological cells of those who live among us.

As in previous such “wars,” the crosshairs of social control will likely be trained first and foremost on those already pushed to the margins: those most vulnerable to infection precisely because they have been the most immiserated and ill-served by the current social order. Video footage shows police brutalizing people of color in France, and terrorizing migrant workers, Muslims and the impoverished in India. As governments harden borders and as right-wing fear-mongering escalates, particularly against Asian people, legitimate anger against states and corporations providing inadequate relief will be channeled instead to baseless racist suspicions.

If history provides any lesson, the danger is that new state powers will not only have the immediate effect of further targeting the most marginalized, but continue to endure as the new normal long after the pandemic has subsided.

While governments have also passed provisions of economic relief — changes that social movements have long fought for, such as freezes on evictions and increased access to benefits — many of these social medicines are only partial and temporary, expiring in just a few months. In contrast, COVID-inspired security measures threaten to be inserted long-term, like a virus, into the DNA of state power.

Here are five forms of infectious security measures that risk proliferating globally:

1. COVID Coups

In the name of curtailing the spread of COVID-19, some authoritarian governments have seized on the opportunity to put parliamentary democracy itself in quarantine — shutting down courts and legislatures, and consolidating their power to rule by fiat.

In Israel, for example, the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked emergency regulations to suspend parliament, shutter the judiciary and push through extreme security measures without legislative oversight.

In Europe, right-wing leaders Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia have legally imposed states of emergency with no set time limits, permitting them to rule indefinitely by decree. Hungary’s law also prescribes jail terms of up to five years for the “crime” of spreading “fake news” — itself an artificially-concocted charge that Orbán has thrown at any media in the country critical of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — already effectively a “fully-fledged military dictator” in the words of Human Rights Watch — has put forward similarly open-ended emergency legislation, empowering his government to restrict all civil and political rights even long after the pandemic abates.

2. Executive Expansion

The COVID-19 security creep is not the exclusive purview of far right parties; governments of all liberal and authoritarian stripes are rushing through laws implementing draconian expansions of police and government powers.

These include the Norwegian government giving itself sweeping license to override almost all existing laws; President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines giving police orders to “shoot to kill” against “troublemakers”; Peru passing a Police Protection Law “protecting” police from being held accountable for even severe abuses; the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland dramatically increasing state powers of detention; Denmark and states across Australia enabling the police to ban people from public places; the U.K. loosening safeguards on mental health incarceration and “national security” surveillance while lowering standards for social services; and the state of New York broadening the definition of “emergency” while according the governor apparently unlimited power to issue “any directive” during one.

This is “a drastic re-imagining of state powers,” warns British human rights nongovernmental organization Liberty of the U.K.’s COVID-19 law — one which may remain on the books for more than two years. (The evictions moratorium, in comparison, is for only three months.) Denmark’s legislation, which will remain in force until March 2021, “is certainly the most extreme since the Second World War” as law professor Jens Elo Rytter notes.

3. Surveillance Spread

From police drones locking down major cities in Spain, Italy and France, to invisible networks of digital data collection spreading around the world — COVID-19 containment is serving as a laboratory for new modes of surveillance and information control.

“Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation and misinformation are being tested across the world,” without any sound evidence regarding their efficacy, observes the nongovernmental organization Privacy International.

While the means of surveillance are rapidly evolving, privacy protections are at serious risk of eroding. Under cover of COVID-19, China has further extended the tentacles of its surveillance super-panopticon — innovating new methods of facial recognition, cellphone monitoring, location tracking, “threat” scoring and remote bio-sensing, while fast-tracking “bio-security” legislation to enshrine its ballooning “Big Brother” state into law.

Capitalizing on the mass COVID-induced distraction, U.S. legislators have been working to renew mass surveillance powers under the post-9/11 Patriot Act that were originally meant to expire in 2005 — a reminder of how easily and insidiously “temporary” emergency laws can become entrenched as permanent features of the security landscape.

As of this writing, new digital surveillance programs have been introduced in at least 22 countries, while advanced physical surveillance technologies have been introduced in seven. Israel has authorized the use of invasive “terrorist tracking” methods to monitor potentially infectious citizens. Russia is currently installing the world’s largest system of facial-recognition cameras. The governments of South Korea and Montenegro have publicly exposed intimate details of their citizens’ private lives.

Tech companies are striking agreements to share user data with governments across Europe and in the United States. The promise that this data-sharing will be “anonymized” provides scant protection, considering it takes only four anonymous data points to de-anonymize 95 percent of subjects, according to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Meanwhile, the GSM Association, a global association of mobile operators, is reportedly exploring the creation of a global data-sharing system capable of tracking individuals anywhere in the world.

4. Rollbacks of Refugee Rights

Even as surveillance technologies easily cross oceans and borders, the most vulnerable are increasingly being constrained from doing the same to escape persecution, hardship and war.

Changes to border policies have been introduced in more than 130 countries, with some advancing pre-existing agendas under the aegis of “crisis management.”

Hungary, for instance, announced on March 1 that it was “indefinitely suspending” — effectively abolishing — the right to seek asylum: the culmination of a long trajectory of anti-humanitarian policies that had already choked off the flow of refugees to less than two per day.

The Greek government has leveraged fears of COVID-19 contagion to justify its plan to construct “closed facilities” tantamount to detention centers for asylum seekers.

The U.S. Department of Justice has proposed legal changes that would block anyone on the president’s travel ban list or “infected with a communicable disease of public health significance” from seeking asylum in the U.S. — in violation of international refugee law.

In Canada, the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will turn back all asylum seekers at the border with the U.S., despite keeping it open for other forms of “essential” economic travel. This is happening despite Canada’s health minister having stated just one week earlier that there was no evidence that hard border restrictions were effective as health measures, echoing the World Health Organization.

While Trudeau suggested this is a temporary and “extraordinary” measure, in fact the Liberal Party government has for years secretly lobbied U.S. to do precisely this: to expand the Safe Third Country Agreement so they could reject asylum seekers without hearing their claims, pandering to right-wing politicians and media who have long called for Canada to violate its fundamental obligations to refugees under international law.

5. Speech Suppression

While governments attempt to institutionalize “exceptional” measures, our ability to scrutinize and contest them is being simultaneously undermined — with parliaments postponed, courts closed, and restrictions on civic activism and dissent metastasizing.

The U.K.’s coronavirus legislation permits ministers to ban any public gathering or demonstration for up to two years — particularly concerning given the government’s history of treating environmental and other progressive movements as “terrorist” threats.

In countries including Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia and China, governments are wielding expansively-worded “fake news” laws to crack down on journalists, academics and opposition activists. Similar legislation has been passed in Azerbaijan, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and is being debated in Nigeria.

In India, the far right Bharatiya Janata Party government has invoked the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act — “one of the most draconian pieces of sanitary legislation ever adopted in colonial India,” according to British historian David Arnold — to disband protests against anti-Muslim citizenship law amendments that threaten to make millions of Indians stateless. The Act has also been deployed to further tighten the vice of surveillance and control in occupied Kashmir.

Security Through Solidarity

A lethal irony is that despite the current state of upheaval, many of the apparatuses of repression facilitating viral transmission remain largely untouched. Even as so many other apparently inalterable features of the world are being remade, the walls and barbed wire encircling the oppressed endure.

The Kashmiris are still under Indian-imposed lockdown, deprived of internet access, with even doctors prevented from accessing vital information about public health.

The Uyghurs are still confined en masse in China’s concentration camps — ideal conditions for the spread of the virus, as in concentration camp systems of previous decades.

Palestinians are still forced to crowd through checkpoints in the West Bank, and still penned in the world’s largest open-air prison in Gaza, under a 13-year-long illegal blockade that has decimated the health care and sanitation systems. The former chief editor of the Israel Broadcast Authority callously speculated that COVID-19 may finally “quiet the Gaza Strip.”

Migrants in the U.K. still live in fear of the government’s “hostile environment” policy, deterring them from seeking health care under threat of deportation.

Millions are still locked in the U.S.’s overcrowded prisons and migrant jails, prevented from accessing even such basic necessities as soap and hand sanitizer to keep themselves safe — although a small fraction of the incarcerated are now being released.

Venezuelans and Iranians are still suffering under U.S.-led sanctions regimes that have deprived them of food, water and medicine, even before the COVID-19 crisis. Rather than lifting sanctions, the U.S. government has tightened the screws.

Instead of alleviating these life-imperilling conditions, governments are now universalizing some of the methods of control honed for use against the “wretched of the Earth.” Tactics of policing and surveillance developed by China to eradicate the “ideological virus” of Islam among the Uyghurs are now being applied to combat the coronavirus in the population at large. Cellphone location tracking, once reserved primarily for the hyper-securitized like the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and undocumented migrants in the U.S., is becoming general policy.

Instead of this partial “levelling down,” we need a mass “levelling up” — not the extension of surveillance, securitization and suspicion, but the fortification and expansion of institutions of social care.

After all, as privacy expert and Harvard fellow Elizabeth Renieris points out, tracking the virus’s spread through location monitoring may be of limited therapeutic value when the hospital beds and medical equipment necessary to treat it are absent. Criminalizing transmission of the virus as “bio-terrorism” is no remedy when criminal legal institutions like jails and prisons are themselves viral incubators par excellence. Aggressively policing adherence to government prescriptions of “social distancing” and “shelter in place” does nothing to heal the epidemic of poverty that ensures so many lack any shelter to distance themselves in.

A different new normal is possible — one in which it isn’t subversion of democracy and basic rights that are made permanent, but the provision of economic and social support; a new normal in which we are not only careful but also full of care. Extreme security measures are a placebo treatment for the ills threatening to overcome us. Solidarity is the only cure.

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