National lockdown: A fascinating exercise in authoritarian government

Britain, alongside most of the world, has been confined to various forms of lockdown since the 24th March. A six-month sentence repenting for the negligent sins of our leaders, recently renewed with no definitive end date. Overall, I think the population has been remarkable passive and accepting, even if tensions are now becoming strained. A resoundingly positive result in demonstrating collective national unity, favourably compared to myths of Blitz spirit. It arguably, however, illustrates a concerningly submissive response to the erosion of our democratic foundations. Sustained national and local lockdowns, by restricting our free, daily activities, have impeded upon our human rights. The pandemic has generated an unusual paradigm unique amongst alternative crises since, dissuaded from actively involving ourselves in the effort, ‘local heroes’ have sat inside and watched TV. There has been little room for the majority to physically engage with the virus response, cultivating an environment of anxious waiting, surrendered to the passage of COVID and the government’s direction.

“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat … That is why it is important to be vigilant today and not give away all our freedoms”

– Joseph Cannatci (UN special rapporteur, 31st March 2020)

When Boris first announced our national lockdown, I was surprised, in the sense that I wasn’t really surprised at all. Realistically, Britain was late to the party. A drunk uncle arriving after Christmas pudding has been served to drink someone else’s whisky and ruin charades. Angry and frustrated, suddenly feeling trapped in my own home, it forced questioning of the entire legitimacy of government, that anyone could justly serve the entire country a prison sentence.

In the immediate aftermath, I was genuinely scared, that confining people to their homes, extending police powers and encouraging neighbourhood informers might usher in a new wave of repressive and lasting reforms under the Conservative party. This was hardly unfounded, witnessing the aggressive controls inflicted upon fellow Europeans Italy and Spain, whilst the appropriation of wartime language overtly displayed the grounds upon which overstepping the limitations of their power would be justified, despite our being in peacetime. It was difficult to feel attached to a reality involving ‘frontline workers’ battling an ‘invisible enemy’.

I hope to distinguish these concerns from the petty complaints issued by entitled citizens in their warm homes, watching HD TV streamed by fibre optic broadband. Now contextualising my individual journey, I lost a term of University and my graduation. All I can do is vainly extend my sympathies to anyone suffering mental health issues, the loss of a job, home or loved one, or those who never had a home to start.

My fearing lockdown was also not motivated by the weird culture wars erupting from fractured elements of the COVID response. People protesting mask wearing are not defending their freedom, it’s simple idiocy. If you want to stab yourself in the neck, you can, but people might try and stop you. Especially if you try and stab all of them, too. It’s a basic safety precaution, for the same reason we have road signs and markings. Anyone, who is not exempt, and deliberately refuses to wear a mask, or worse those individuals coughing at shop workers who’ve ‘offended’ them, are pathetic. Healthcare should not be politicised.

That being said, why is it mandatory to wear a mask in France, but illegal if that face covering is for religious reasons? I mean, besides racism?

By March, perhaps a national lockdown had become essential to avert a catastrophic healthcare disaster. Images of bulging foreign hospitals presumably weighed heavily atop Boris’ shoulders. As he recently reaffirmed, the most vulnerable groups needed protection, and blaming them is both callous and pointless. Drastic measures were not always the case, however. ‘Coronavirus’ stumbled into my radar in January, having obviously been discovered in December, four months before appropriate action was taken. Additionally, public figures, notably Barack Obama and Bill Gates predicted the potential danger of an infectious disease, on a global scale, years in advance. In the immortal words of Kellyanne Conway, “this is COVID-19, not COVID 1 folks”. Though it would have broken this current government’s reactive mould, much more should have been done.

COVID lockdown leaving usually-busy streets empty
Lockdown leaving streets unusually deserted

Instead, national lockdown represented a, hopefully reversable, shift towards authoritarianism, reminiscent of totalitarian fascist states. In any crisis lay the seeds to blossom into dictatorial power, fostering a surge of populist patriotism behind one leader, often accompanied by an increasingly violent climate. For admittedly dramatic comparison, the 1933 Reichstag fire bears remembering. As the parliament burnt, the leading party was afforded the opportunity to blame their ‘extremist’ opponents, expelling political opposition. A state of emergency was declared, and Adolf Hitler’s party, amidst the festering discontent of Germany’s economic crisis, fabricated a national crisis to demolish all democratic machinery, endorsed by officials and the people. That historical path has been studied relentlessly, continuing to resonate today. One key ingredient is typically the invention of a convenient scapegoat. Hitler infamously oversaw the mass-murder of Jewish populations, who found themselves a target as Europe enduring the Black Death, too. Blamed for poisoning wells in an assault against Christianity, Jews were reviled and attacked in vast numbers.

In modern times, the language of ‘China flu’ is ever-threatening in America, especially when delivered to a population pre-disposed to mindless anger. Far from unique, the Cambodian Health Ministry in an official update connoted the culpability of its minority Muslim population for introducing COVID.

Across the globe, this pandemic has been manipulated in many countries by state leaders to employ draconian methods against their citizens, in the name of protection. Physical social protests have been muted by the imperative of remaining inside, public gatherings having been banned. Perhaps most notably, Putin passed new legislature to end term limits in Russia, looking to rule long into the next decade, whilst rapidly enhancing national surveillance and facial recognition programmes. Last month’s brazen assassination attempt against Alexei Navalny is a stark reminder of his control. 

An extremely effective method of virus control has been tracing and surveillance methods. Alongside Russia, democracies like Iceland, South Korea and Singapore have to their immense advantage capitalised upon the technologically-enabled web of contacts to identify and contact those at potential risk. But will these be turned off when the pandemic is ‘over’? The NHS track and trace app trialled in the Isle of Wight was criticised over privacy breaches.

In Hungary, the country has witnessed a slow back-slide from the fragile democracy established in 1990, since Viktor Orban assumed the position of Prime Minister in 2010, leaving the fish farm he was raised on. Catalysed by national lockdown, his parliament granted him indefinite emergency powers, dismantling the last semblance of democracy. In its purest form, dictatorship has arisen in Hungary fuelled by the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. Far from alone, similar stories of increased power grabs have occurred in Israel, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the Philippines. Appallingly, though less directly intwined with their COVID response, the USA has also experienced a recent power grab by the incumbent Republican party. Trump, insisting without evidence that mail-in voting will produce a fraudulent and illegitimate election result, has simultaneously orchestrated the destruction of the USPS, to ensure the truth of his claims. Alongside Trump encouraging his supporters to commit voter fraud, the GOP is also hypocritically attempting to replace Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in direct contrast to their own statements from 2016. Worse still, even when directly asked, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he be defeated in the upcoming November election. Yeah… bye bye, free world.

Thankfully, Britain’s lockdown has, at every stage, been too disorganised to advance dictatorial measures. Boris has bumbled and blustered his way through a parade of blunders, overseeing damages which could surely have been mitigated through better planning. The government’s key message, swinging from ‘Save lives’ to ‘Save the economy’ has been bizarre and notoriously confusing. ‘Eat out to help out’ was perhaps a short-lived success, reviving many stagnant restaurants, but gnawing away at dwindling government supplies and contributing to the £300billion bill. Despite Sunak buying us all half a supper, encouraging our descent upon restaurants, even worse on specific days to increase the congestion, might have exacerbated problem one, in the pandemic. The latest regulations, enforcing face coverings when entering a café or restaurant, still allow them to be removed to eat or drink, which rather defeats the entire point.

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Earlier this week, we were mercifully rid of the full lockdown restrictions, followed by the additional, positive news, of a newly approved COVID vaccine. Fully deserved congratulations to the incredible researchers, especially those representing Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca. With the beginning of the end in sight, the road is still long, and amidst the flurry…

With an apparent six more months of newly implemented regulations, it is impossible not to regard our previous six months of measures as arbitrary and reactive. The ‘two-meter-rule’ is based on an out-dated model of transmission (ignoring even the ridiculous and brief reduction to one meter), whilst the ‘rule of six’ makes no sense in the context of housing bubbles, which might themselves exceed six individuals alone.

Boris’ latest 22nd September typically revealed almost nothing of interest. Still, his ongoing resolve has to be admired. Like a melting wax-work figure waving his little rubber hands, a far-cry from the charisma of Churchill, we are still weathering the same storm together.

It was the indefinite element of his message that remains troubling and is most conceptually problematic. We were promised a ‘road map’ out of lockdown from the early months of summer. Though dependent upon the uncertainty of coronavirus, and imprecise projections of vaccine development, we have been consistently at the mercy of a government clearly inadequately trained to overcome present struggles. The precedent, too, has already been established, in that regulations are routinely implemented under the same banner of ‘this is what the country needs’. There is no end to social and travel restrictions in sight. Instead, new University students are reporting their imprisonment as waves of repressive measures percolate south from Scotland, currently afflicted many amongst Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds and soon Sheffield. Do students need guards loitering outside their blocks barring their exit into the outside world?

There is some cause for optimism. Boris did, of course, reaffirm his mission to uphold as many freedoms as possible, which was a lovely sentiment. We might be facing rampant unemployment and a fresh recession, but Britain is still, apparently, a democracy.

Poland also produced an interesting case study. Due to coronavirus casting a low voter turnout, in-person elections scheduled for May were projected to deliver incumbent Andrzej Duda an overwhelming victory. Controversially, the far-Right ‘Law and Justice’ President repelled initial attempts to post-pone elections, but eventually bowed to increasing pressures. Though Duda eventually won, after the two election rounds occurred in June and July, it was by the slim margin of 51%, over the 49% of Rafal Trzaskowski (btw, one of the best-looking politicians out there). Sufficiently close so as to appear legitimate, even if the national public broadcaster served Duda as a personal campaign vehicle.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that coronavirus has raised as many challenges to autocratic regimes as opportunities afforded. Even Kim Jong Un secretly sought international aid, remarkable because the country was reporting precisely zero cases. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s mismanagement has greatly exacerbated existing strains, erupting in violent protests following his scandalous and likely fraudulent electoral victory in August. Though the international media has largely abandoned its temporary coverage of developments, tensions persist, enhanced by reports Lukashenko secretly swore himself into office amidst widespread opposition and outrage. Russian military drills, maneouvres serving to precursor the construction of a Russian base in Belarus, are of further concern. But whilst Svetlana Tikhanovskaya continues her robust protest, there is hope for the region. These demands for change loosely mirror the recent, sweeping national uprisings across Thailand in protest of the monarchy, and cyclical spiral of military coups and usurpations.

The global crisis continues to inspire autocracy, whilst also presenting challenges, set to continue as long as the shadow of COVID looms over our lives.

Thanks for reading! I post regularly with short stories, travel blogs, and contemporary commentary, so stayed tuned!

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