Big Brother may keep watching us forever

Facing a global health crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on people, governments have resorted to restrictive measures including state of emergency, social distancing and the use of advanced technological tools. While these measures seem to be vital in avoiding the spread of the disease and in protecting public health, some governments have seized the opportunity to undertake more repressive measures through massive arrests, restrictions on information and communication, harsh confinement rules and increased digital surveillance.

The high degree of monitoring would raise eyebrows in normal times, especially in liberal democracies. But everybody seems to understand that these are not “normal times”. People’s health depends much on surveillance and as an exceptional situation calls for exceptional measures, “an emergency situation requires emergency measures,” admits the pro-democracy French philosopher, Edgar Morin.

The worry, however, is that measures affecting people’s private life do not seem to have sunset clauses. Who could say they will not become the “new normal” when the pandemic is over?

According to The Guardian, the fact that many countries start using physical surveillance “has steadily risen” with the COVID-19. Israel, for instance, was one of the first countries to introduce “phone tracking”, following people suspected of being infected. Despite the virus slowing down in parts of the world, a precedent in spying people has been set.

While international human rights organisations have warned that digital surveillance can only be used to tackle public health, and that it should be done only if “certain conditions are met”, many questions remain unanswered. For instance, how far should governments go in their surveillance of individuals to enforce isolation? In other words, how do we know that monitoring has gone too far? And do governments really care about balancing prevention of contamination and protection of privacy and individual human rights?

An opportunity for settling scores

Growing repression is, also, one of the legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic as dictatorships try to settle scores with populations eager for freedom and democracy.

Algeria is a case in point. Authorities have seized the opportunity of the pandemic to silence the one-year Hirak protest movement. Not only have they banned gatherings since mid-March, but they have also embarked on an unprecedented wave of arrests of several activists. Independent journalists are not spared, either. Press freedom groups, including Reporters without Borders, regret that “Algerian authorities are taking advantage of the epidemic to settle scores with independent journalism.”

As coronavirus spreads in Egypt, the military regime tightens its grip, reducing the hope for democratic change. At the beginning of May, new amendments, giving President al-Sisi additional powers, were adopted. International and national human rights observers believe that these powers are not meant to combat the virus, but to increase abuses. The Egyptian government “is using the pandemic to expand abusive emergency law,” said a Human Rights Watch spokesperson.

The civil war in Syria, Yemen and Libya erodes the possibilities to curtail the disease, not only because these countries are poorly equipped with the necessary tools, but also because central governments have no control over the country as a whole. Palestinians under the Israeli occupation suffer the same fate. The densely populated Gaza Strip, with one of the poorest populations in the world, is under a blockade from both Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian Authority that controls less than a half of the West bank finds it hard to cope with the pandemic.

In the meantime, some western political leaders, who have learnt nothing from past lessons, continue to fuel civil wars and back dictators in a very unstable region. But for how long? A BBC political analyst warns: “Big players in the Middle East will have to rethink dangerous and expensive foreign policy. The days of buying influence and fighting proxy wars may be over soon.” A word to the wise!

Messaoud Romdhani

EuroMed Rights Executive Committee member

This article was drawn from a reflection first published on Alternatives International.