Two nights ago, I watched a man being arrested outside the studio where I am hunkered down in Berlin . I don’t know why. The man could not prove where he lived so he was taken into custody.
My partner and I watched but we didn’t intervene, we didn’t ask the reason or where the man was going. As non-citizens I feel vulnerable at the best of times, but the chilling effect of the Covid-19 outbreak on civil liberties is real and needs our focus.
Let me be clear. The Covid-19 pandemic is a catastrophe and people should the advice of governments and stay at home. At the same time I consider it utterly essential that we question the acts of our governments in the days, weeks and months that follow.
How can these two seemingly contradictory statements coexist? Firstly, we need to differentiate between scientists and governments. I trust scientific consensus on issues like Covid-19 and Climate Change. I trust governments only when I believe there is a good reason to do so. Yesterday, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people to stay at home so as not to hasten the spread of this dangerous pathogen. She is repeating, almost verbatim, the scientific consensus of epidemiologists. In this context, I trust that Merkel is acting in good faith and that this advice is sound. On the flip side I don’t trust governments when they ignore scientific consensus, for instance when, despite warnings from climate scientists, governments allow coal mining, build airport runways and subsidise polluting industries.
So following the advice of scientists is not the same thing as blindly obeying your government. There are two reasons why this is important. The first relates to the current pandemic. We need to pay close attention to the emergency legislation that is passed because of the powers that it grants governments, agencies, police and the security services. In the UK, legislation to halt the spread of Covid-19 gives police the power to arrest anyone they suspect of having Covid-19. Given that in a pandemic any one of us might have the virus, this is essentially a power to arrest anyone at any time.
While there are strong arguments that such powers are necessary to ensure adherence to the basic behaviours necessary to save our own lives and those of the elderly and immunocompromised, this power should still scare us. We should ask, what oversight is there of these arrest powers? What avenues exist to contend arbitrary detention? And finally is there a sunset clause to these powers? Otherwise these powers could continue indefinitely.
We know already from the September 11 attacks on New York City that security services overreach when there is an emergency situation, that they are eager to assume powers when everyone is so thrown by a sense of crisis that they stop paying attention. I’m not arguing that people reactively resist the directions of governments, police, health agencies during this crisis, but that they pay attention and question the powers these authorities grant themselves.
The second reason why critical thinking remains important at this moment relates to the question of how we got to this crisis in the first place – and how we will avoid or better manage future crises on a global scale. All the economic shocks roiling economies across the world – the grounding of planes, the halting of industry – were deemed impossible just months earlier when they were advocated by Extinction Rebellion to stop Climate Change. Now they are deemed inevitable in the fight against Covid19.
What is especially disturbing with this crisis is that epidemiologists have long warned that human encroachment on natural spaces increases the likelihood of the very event we are living through. Governments and corporations would not act on these warning, or at best barely acted, because it seemed somehow distant and irrelevant compared to economic growth. now the entire world has stopped because the ruling class rightly recognises that even their lives are threatened by this crisis, along with entire social and economic fabric they rely on.
We know from the predictions of climate scientists that this will not be the last crisis that humanity faces, and that crises of this scale will come with increasing rapidity. Will we expect ourselves to suspend our critical judgement each time a new megahazard emerges?
The answer should be no. I urge you to read the legislation that governments pass in response to Covid-19, carefully watch the activities of police and security services and be prepared to call out overreach before it is too late and an expanded security state becomes normalised. And read widely. Haymarket Books just released 10 e-books for free including Angela Davis’ Freedom is a constant Struggle. My goal is to skip Netflix and educate myself on the broader context of these terrifying events now that my freedom to move is so restricted.
The destructive short term thinking that has created the 21st Century of crises will only change if we demand it and we turn a critical eye on the governments and corporations that direct our lives. Which is why it is important that when we implore others to #StayTheFuckHome, we also #StayTheFuckCritical.