The coronavirus pandemic has taken the world intelligentsia by storm. The prevailing concepts of security, governance, and public administration stand questioned. Many are picturing frightening dystopias emerge from this outbreak. Surveillance, legitimacy of authority, virtualisation of reality, and rising xenophobia are the most feared outcomes.
While this globalisation of fear reigns, there are many optimists as well who believe that this health crisis also gives opportunities to learn and exercise effective response mechanisms to other challenges that are faced by humanity today. The models which the governments are employing to cope up with COVID-19 provide precedence for eco-regulation and implementation of universal healthcare systems. The governments’ capabilities to intervene have been laid bare. The enormity of threat posed to the mankind today has compelled the states to put aside their market-oriented approach to governance. The United States has announced $2 trillion as support mechanism for the most economically vulnerable during the lockdowns. The badly hit European states are operationalising on war footings. The Government of Pakistan has announced Rs1.2 trillion out of which Rs200 billion chunk is allocated for the labourers. While the question as to how much will the governments be able to keep up with the announcements and initiatives is pertinent, the policy changes during this emergency illuminate the forgotten obligations of the state. What it establishes is that the governments must transcend the neo-liberal boundaries of their jurisdiction to protect their citizens.
Keeping all this in view, the environmentalists should not forget that similar initiatives can be undertaken to enable eco-regulations – support mechanisms for the unemployed due to industrial shutdowns in pursuit of eco-sustainability. The world peace champions should not overlook the prospects to governmentalise the health sector. But this is only possible if the environmental crisis is considered as grave as a global pandemic and health security is prioritised over defence and space programmes. So far, the optimists provide no concrete strategies to make such pro-people changes to global policy discourses. Global governance has festered rather than flourished in the recent past. The bodies working under the United Nations are already losing their credibility and legitimacy by failing to avert human tragedies across the globe over and over. Now that the rich creditor economies are either creating issues for the world or backing down from leadership role in global problems – for instance, the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement has put the treaty back by years – the global health and environmental governance will remain problematic.
However, the governmental space has expanded in this crisis anyway. One of the most worrisome problems it creates is authority over the use of public space. The governments are now more capable of ruling the citizens out of public spaces in the name of collective good. At the moment, it is prevention from a contagious virus, but tomorrow it can be a governmental strategy to keep the people from the streets – an extreme legitimacy to curb anti-regime agitations. People around the world are coming up with innovative strategies to cope with the reduced access to public spaces. The Spanish citizens protested during the King’s speech by banging pots and pans within their homes. Singers are doing concerts online, universities are teaching courses via web links, and offices are holding meetings through gadgets. The internet has never been busier. It is like the whole world is online 24/7 to consume and republish whatever information it comes across. The unprecedented use of cyberspace during this pandemic has carried the digitalisation of human interaction to new highs. This is rendering the tangible public space a strong avenue for power-personalisation. Holding processions and demonstrations might become tougher than ever and no one really seems to know the limits this can touch. A glimpse of brutalising corona governmentality was seen when the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte warned that the authorities would shoot dead anyone violating coronavirus lockdown measures. It has to be seen as normal in the middle of a pandemic, but what if such a normalcy prevails even after it?
The most repugnant aspect sprouting out of this is the expansion of states’ right to surveillance. Yuval Noah Harari has given the intimations of surveillance absolutism. He refers to it as “under the skin surveillance,” in which not only a citizen’s social profile but also the complete biological profile rests with the authorities. Such databases have already been put in place by China to deal with public health crises. Prior to this pandemic, such initiatives would spark a strong ethical debate. In the late 1980s, the US launched the Human Genome Project, under which the New York Police Department ran genetic profiling of the citizens. This was done to provide the law enforcement body with prior cognizance of potential offenders. Like the genetically criminal New Yorkers, biologically compromised individuals could be declared a menace to the public good and cast out of the society. The Human Genome Project had to be shut down because those times were not ready for such a paradigmatic shift in the public ethos, but the coronavirus crisis seems to be providing a very conducive environment for the implementation of an unprecedented surveillance machinery which knows no limits.
These developments are making societies more prone to authority. The lines along which these new authoritarianisms will anchor themselves are a matter of great intrigue. The established norms of globalisation have found themselves in a conundrum. A mass public distrust in connectivity and mass global consumption is surfacing. It has become easier for populist leaders to implement their xenophobic policies. Right now, it is cushier to label any opposition to these policies as anti-community or a threat to public health. Closing borders and hate politics has never been easier. The Modi-led BJP government has accelerated its long-aspired mission of demographic change in Jammu and Kashmir while the whole world is busy dealing with a global pandemic. Likewise, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the rule by decree in Israel. Furthermore, the liberal ideals of freedom and liberty seem no more held as the world witnesses western democracies prove unable to eradicate the challenges of the 21st century. The model of governance that has emerged as the most potent during these days is the Chinese vertical meritocracy. The prompt response capabilities and potential to mobilise massive resources that China has showcased is not being offered by the west’s first world democracies. It is only a matter of time when the constructs like freedom, democratic rights, and individual privacy are considered hurdles in the way effective public policy. This can increase a global acceptance for Chinese methods to polity. Coupled with rising tendencies of authoritarianism and xenophobia, the globalisation can really take a nationalist turn. But would that be a globalisation?
The globalisation is, however, in the doldrums since the financial meltdown of 2008. It has been challenged by populisms in the most robust of democracies. Free trade as a basic tenet of neo-liberal globalisation was eroded badly by the financial crisis which to many analysts, itself was a result of misplaced global obsession with growth. This coupled with increased distrust in global connectivity due to the coronavirus crisis has the potential to invert the way we look at globalisation. The cross-border mobility might never return to where it was until December 2019. While on the one hand, the scepticism of connectivity is pulling apart the fabric of the existing global, on the other, the nations and individuals are practicing distancing as a collective and integrated effort to eliminate the pandemic. While the nationalisation of the globe seems evermore swift and accepted avenue, a global response behaviour to global challenges can be seen around the corner. It would be a fallacy to say that this would be the end of globalisation. What seems more appropriate to envision is a globalisation with a national face, powered by international supply chains of health security complex and multinational corporation-enabled surveillance infrastructure, but with far less pluralistic spirit.
These are the times for abnormalities to become normalities. What was not possible for decades has now been made possible. The masses are the most vulnerable and consenting to drastic attacks on their spaces. A plenty of what happens now is going to stay. As the Great Economic Depression of the 1930s, the World War II and the 9/11, COVID-19 is also shaping a world of its own. And in the middle of all this, one clear reality that stares right into our eyes is that the world of corona republics has dawned.