Across the world, people have been looking to governments to guide them through the coronavirus pandemic. And governments have been more than happy to oblige, filling TV screens with constant press briefings and issuing directives on what people can or cannot do. But for some, this has come at a cost – silence.
“This is a time to be united, not to be pointing fingers” is a common refrain. It is a mantra recited at podiums by public officials and amplified by diverse media from Fox News to the BBC.
The Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, whose handling of the epidemic has been hailed by the Wall Street Journal, also rarely fails to caution Kenyans against criticising the government during the government’s daily briefings on COVID-19.
In one briefing he remarked that given the threat Kenya faces from the epidemic, “Criticising the government is just adding salt to injury”.
Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the leader of the opposition Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, has said now is “not the time to ask difficult questions … I’m trying to resist calls for apologies or criticising past decisions. I will work with the government on this, we will support them in trying to get this right”.
Yet this is precisely the time to question the motives and actions of governments. By now societies around the world should know that it is especially in times of “existential crises”, when governments take up special powers, that they should be the most vigilant. Recent events that predate the pandemic should have reminded them of this old lesson.
The first two decades of this millennium have been dominated by global concerns over the spectre of terrorism. Many turned to governments for answers and it was suggested that in order to protect citizens, governments not only needed more power, but democratic mechanisms for oversight and accountability needed to be loosened.
According to a recent study, just like global pandemics, “terrorist attacks evoke unusually high levels of fear among the public which makes it likely that citizens abruptly put their trust in government in order to reduce feelings of uncertainty”.
Though such increased levels of trust in governments following major incidents are typically short-lived, authorities are not above abusing and instrumentalising them. The administration of former United States President George W Bush demonstrated this in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when it used the fear of terrorism to orchestrate the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Loosening the reigns on governments typically leads to worse outcomes than those they are meant to guard against. Terrorists may have murdered tens of thousands, but the death toll from government responses runs into the hundreds of thousands, even millions.
While in 2014 terror groups were estimated to have killed 32,658 people, the late political science scholar Rudolph Rummel estimated those killed by governments in the 20th century to be in the order of 262 million – or an average of over 2.6 million people a year. There is even a term for it: democide.
Thus freeing up governments so they can supposedly more effectively and efficiently fight terrorists or viruses may very well be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
“Concentrated political power is the most dangerous thing on earth,” concluded Rummel. And he was right. It is why democracies that fragment and distribute power are much less of a threat to their citizens than totalitarian regimes where power is concentrated in the hands of the executive or a single leader.
However, as English philosopher John Gray observes in the New Statesman, even democratic states like the UK can be Hobbesian, privileging peace and strong government. “Being shielded from danger has trumped freedom from interference by government,” he wrote.
Especially when feeling threatened, citizens can feel tempted to exchange a measure of liberty for the protection of a beefier, brawnier state.
And while they may think that they are only giving up their rights temporarily, that is not really the case. Few of the “emergency” powers that states acquired in the name of fighting terrorism, such as mass-surveillance, have been given back.
It seems reasonable to assume that the new tricks governments are learning when it comes to, for example, tracing and tracking citizens and their movements and contacts will not be forgotten once the coronavirus crisis is past.
Given the risks, it is prudent to be very careful about the leeway given to government officials. Social distancing need not mean political disengagement or silent acquiescence to whatever restrictions governments say are necessary.
Rather, it is a time to be vocal and to demand not just data on numbers of confirmed cases, but actual information on government thinking, plans and models. We also have to hold public officials to account when their sums do not add up.
This is not the time for the institutions of democracy such as parliaments to remain shuttered or for media and opposition leaders to shy away from criticising governments.
There will be life after coronavirus. What the public must understand is that what shape it takes will be determined by how far we are willing to defend our freedoms against the predation of governments today.