Articles Asia Politics & Governance

Securitisation of COVID-19

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The Securitisation governments of the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 has disrupted people’s lives and has forced governments around the world to take measures to contain the spread of the virus and prevent further deaths. Surprisingly, the virus revealed the lack of preparedness of the governments that led them towards formulating securitised policy responses. The undertaken responses reflect the politics of security through which an issue is framed as an existential threat against some referent object, which mainly justify the emergency measures that the governments employ in giving protection to its citizens. According to Buzan, Wæver, and de Wilde, “security is a uniquely powerful discourse that moves issues from the realm of the political to a realm above politics, implement emergency measures that violate the normal political rules of the game”. Thus, COVID-19 is used as a rationale for enacting emergency measures. Media reporting, political speeches, and public debates are stocked with notions of “the battle against Corona”, the fight against the “hidden enemy”, and the virus taking the shape of an “invisible killer”. Employing such metaphors at one end conveys a sense of urgency while simultaneously creating imageries of “us” versus “it”. A broadened framing such as this blurs the idea of responsibility and contains itself in finding immediate solutions and responses, thus reducing the political space for addressing the root causes.

The works of Susan Sontag (Illness as Metaphor, 1978; AIDS and its Metaphor 1989) and Frank Furedi (How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, 2018) examine the working of an industry that is solely driven on the fear that leads the public toward a harrowing dead-end. The most significant observation that Susan Sontag makes in her work is how a disease, be it a common cold or cancer gradually manifests itself while assuming a social identity of its own and becoming something more than a disease. Similarly, cancer was framed as a curse, infliction, or something evil. The way through which framing of diseases is conducted demonstrates the underlying vulnerabilities and prejudices of the society. In contrast, the generation of fear around some diseases is a major point through which Frank Furedi analyses the existing fear industry. His central premise is based on the argument that the culture of fear is driven by moral authority; the notion of fear gives a provisional solution to moral uncertainty and is embraced by a variety of actors. Almost every day, we are bombarded with messages about the threats that society presently faces and the fact that those threats are incalculable and difficult to contain. There has to be a reason for the publicity that certain illnesses get than others, knowingly that diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea continue to kill thousands of people every year. These metaphors and the functionality of fear makes securitisation easier by inducing mass panic and hysteria.

Almost every day, we are bombarded with messages about the threats that society presently faces and the fact that those threats are incalculable and difficult to contain. There has to be a reason for the publicity that certain illnesses get than others, knowingly that diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea continue to kill thousands of people every year. These metaphors and the functionality of fear makes securitisation easier by inducing mass panic and hysteria.

The introduction of surveillance technology in the form of contact tracing applications is one glaring example of securitisation and the associated fear. For citizens to move freely, governments had to devise mechanisms to track the spread of the virus by identifying the contaminated and their contacts. For many around the world, the move was seen to be providing a major getaway to the governments for collecting more health data – a step that is questionable in terms of both ethics and privacy.

How highly sophisticated technologies are being used to track and monitor people is a worrisome development as it normalises the employment of mass surveillance tools and might make the premise of civil liberties and freedom to become more elusive. We all must ask ourselves: could these emergency responses outweigh the freedom that we previously possessed? Today, we might have accepted these strategies for the sake of our health, but are we all ready to accept them as a norm? Interestingly, the COVID-19 virus has not only exposed things but has also acted as an opportunity for governments to enact policies that might have been difficult to implement previously. The varied contours will gradually emerge, normalising the undertaken policies under the guise of safety and protection. Yet another control mechanism is being employed to conduct surveillance with high precision, and we as citizens are surrendering our freedom mainly due to the associated fears.

As the preceding paragraphs suggest, the engineering of fear and the usage of security-centric metaphors categorises the issue at hand in distinct binaries, thus shifting the focus to introducing emergency responses, transmitting a sense of control at both ends. Reportedly, the intelligence services of Pakistan activated a secret surveillance system that was otherwise used to track militant targets. There is little transparency about which surveillance tools have been employed except for geofencing and telco-tracking mechanisms, deployed to track COVID-affected patients. Precisely, this is what securitisation leads to, and in the current day and age, surveillance technology is making its inroads in our day to day mobility. These implemented changes under the premise of providing “safety” to the citizens can have long-lasting effects if its scope remains undefined. The current trends depict a rather daunting challenge in the face of increasing surveillance. The question that sticks is: will mass surveillance and the associated fears outlive the pandemic?

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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