The emergence of the pandemic and its consecutive measures to stop it, have motivated deep debates about today’s world and the post-emergency world, which we will try to summarize.
Measures change our perspective on what “normal life” is:
Chancellor Angela Merkel has pointed out that isolation affects “our idea of normality.”
The conduct of the majority of the world population is social, is to talk, hug, shake hands, go to the park, travel. Our routines are changing thanks to the proposal of staying in our houses, keeping distance, closing borders, not traveling, etc.
It is a new experience because, for many years, we have not seen a phenomenon whose solution depends so much on individual behavior and which costs so much, because it means that we have to temporarily resign our freedom.
There’s a general agreement that it must be done, that it is absolutely necessary. But you must also pay attention to this fact because it is very difficult to convince people to change their normal lives.
The idea of a common enemy
Identifying a common enemy and being afraid of it unifies us, as Umberto Eco has taught us several years ago.
This is why many world leaders say that we are in a “war” against an unknown enemy. Hence, that is why we all understand that we need to adopt drastic measures.
In other cases, there is a dispute more focused on politics. That is why debates emerge whenever the US president uses the term “Chinese virus”, or when China says that the virus was originated by a visit from the US military, or Italy arguing that it all started due to the visits of the Chinese delegations at the Milan fashion fair, or when we blame one country for not having quickly informed the rest of the situation at hand.
In all cases, it is all about justification; a “story” that gives the measures a fundament and make them understandable.
This opens a debate on the rule of law and the “state of exception”, so well described by Giorgio Agamben
The democratic consensus
A great discussion has arised because many Asian countries are achieving better results than others in the West.
One of the reasons is because they have a cultural tradition based on respect for state authority, a broader understanding of the collective and a narrower sphere of personal freedom.
The measures adopted in these countries have been extremely harsh in every sense, but where the most attention is drawn is in the field of technology.
Digital surveillance has been used remarkably: control through television cameras, cell phones, drones, big data and artificial intelligence allow us to have information about the movements of each individual. These tools are very effective and have been proven so.
This adequate system, now, is dramatically dangerous if it lasts over time and without control because it can be the instrument which can be used by authoritarianism, as we have already stated in a previous article (“The new social control”, published in Clarin, 04/11/2020)
That risk has been warned by Merkel, who had memorable phrases, pointing out that the only way to fight the virus is with an open democracy, where decisions are explained and justified because we do not live under submission, but from shared knowledge.
At present times, this statement requires a high degree of courage. Authoritarianism is simple, effective and fast, while democracy is complex, sometimes slow and less effective.
In many democratic countries there are problems, as usual: the president proposes directives that the governors challenge (Brazil), or the Court must intervene because there are conflicts with the parliament (Israel), or there are divisions about what to do.
In Argentina, we must appreciate that in this times we have acted responsibly and within a democratic framework.
The national and provincial governments, the three branches of the state, the ruling party and the opposition, agree on a common strategy. There are no relevant disagreements and an institutional framework has been created, which is very important.
The media is playing an important role in transmitting information about the pandemic. No one can say that they are unaware of what is currently happening.
For this reason, the population is highly aware not only of compliance with the measures, but also of the censorship of those who irresponsibly resist.
Argentines often demonstrate solidarity in times of great tragedy and it is something that must be pointed out as a positive characteristic of our society.
Emergencies must be dealt within a democratic framework, building general consensus.
This builds trust, which is an essential element for standards to be met, in order to avoid fear or individual anarchy.
Legitimacy in democracy
The debate on authoritarianism seemed forgotten, but when there is a crisis and the need to act quickly, it dangerously reappears.
It is important to demonstrate that democracies can act effectively because trust in institutions is built by using all available mechanisms.
Technology should not be discarded or underused, always, of course, within democratic procedures.
There are countries that control the movements of people with information on their cell phones; if the person travels, complies with the quarantine or violates it. The deterrence of minor offenses is done through social networks, leaving serious cases for the police and judicial system so as not to saturate the. Whoever circulates can receive information about places of risk, which is carried out by the use of GPS.
Technology has been developed to an extent where you can control the signs of your disease, which can be measured through cell phone applications.
Technology makes a difference because there are countries, like Switzerland for example, which have been criticized by the bureaucracy regarding the treatment of information. Each step is meticulously registered and controlled by an official, which delays everything.
It is interesting to see how, in some cases, technological use is encouraged to favor the exchange of information on specific topics such as the level of infection or medical experiences, or quantitative analyzes, or the identification of risk areas.
These experiences have led to the creation of new channels for the exchange of essential goods, such as food and medicine, as well as the exploitation of resources through close collaboration between the public and private sectors.
In short, collective intelligence is needed in order to control an emergency effectively, with flexible measures that can change, adapt according to the variables that may arise.
The state of emergency
Border closure measures, prohibition of movement, limits on the right of assembly and other similar measures have motivated the concern of many social theorists, who point out the risk of living in a state of emergency.
For this reason, it is imperative that the measurements are limited in time and then return back to normal.
In this sense, the measures adopted in an emergency are justified, as long as they respect certain limits of the Rule of Law and, above all, that they aren’t extended throughout time, as the Argentine Supreme Court has pointed out.
Prioritizing life, health, protecting the vulnerable and doing so within an effective democratic system is the great challenge that we are currently facing.
It is difficult to comply with isolation, it is a sacrifice, but it is very important that we do it as well as worrying about respecting the rule of law. It’s in these times where we prove to what extent we are willing to defend those principles and values.