As in the dystopian “Planet of the Apes” films, people in the developed world may find themselves stripped of their freedom and wealth – at least if they continue turning a blind eye to the undermining of democracy during the pandemic.
Wearing masks may be a sensible precaution during a pandemic but looking at the people hidden behind them brings to mind the famous Asian pictorial maxim of three monkeys embodying the principle of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Like them, we are turning a blind eye to an alarming situation, refusing to hear and talk of it.
When the Covid-19 drama started in China in late 2019, Western democracies were unimpressed. Europe slept until mid-March, when governments began panicking: closing borders, ignoring the right to the free movement of goods originating in the European Union by blocking deliveries of medical supplies to other member states, and freezing the continent in hard lockdowns. Fundamental civil rights, such as the freedom of movement and assembly, were suspended. Public debate was practically silenced.
Governments assumed authoritarian powers based on the opinions of selected virologists. Those questioning the measures taken, or merely demanding an open discussion, were marginalized and called all sorts of names. In many countries, governments presented their strategies as the only ones possible, “alternativlos.”
No brilliant results
In an emergency, such a heavy-handed approach may be acceptable for a brief period when a government acts quickly on imperfect knowledge in the face of significant danger. However, one year later, little has changed: arbitrary policies remain in place, and so does the ban on debating them. When you shut down public debate, making the proverbial monkey cover its mouth, inevitably, frustration rises and the opposition becomes radicalized. And your “alternativlos” policies cause all sorts of damage in the real world.
It is disputable that there is any advantage to blanket closing restaurants or retail stores that have strict admission limits.
The economy has been harmed dramatically in the Covid crisis. Even though many governments are throwing money at the problem, business is suffering. Small and medium-sized enterprises, the backbone of the economy and the central pillar of any free and prosperous society, are hurting particularly acutely. Also, the paternalistic, self-serving manner that governments and their scientific advisors have adopted in treating and addressing their sovereign, the citizens, is truly disconcerting – even if some of the steps taken may make sense in this extraordinary situation.
See no evil, hear no evil. Governments do not seem to weigh the usefulness and damage caused by the measures they adopt to fight the pandemic. It is highly disputable, for example, that there is any advantage to blanket closing restaurants or retail stores that have instituted strict limits on admission. But governments, like the monkey in the proverb, will not listen.
The contact-tracing systems that automatically record interactions between people and are supposed to deliver us from the pandemic, may be particularly damaging to freedom. Advocated for monitoring virus transmissions, such systems could be made compulsory in the future under countless pretexts – for general surveillance, pre-travel screening, or for example, in criminal prosecutions.
Then there is the human factor. The restrictions imposed on family life and enforced social distancing weigh heavily on societies’ mental and psychological condition. Older people, for example, are often locked away under the pretext of saving their lives. Condemned to loneliness, they lose their sense of purpose.
The sweet taste of power
These are mere examples of the problems that besiege us these days. One must not doubt that governments and administrations are trying hard to protect people’s health. However, the eagerness to impose consecutive lockdowns may suggest a certain degree of satisfaction in the power that the executive branch now wields. In many instances, parliaments have passed laws that add to government purview and reduce their own role in the democratic process. This is not too surprising, as the political party system is oriented toward creating a government majority. Many parliamentarians are foot soldiers of the party oligarchy rather than responsible agents for their constituencies.
The looming danger is that this system will not restore all of the freedoms curbed under the pandemic-fighting banner. The newly gained power, although toxic, might taste like a sweet morsel to the political and administrative establishment. Last summer, when some basic liberties were briefly “allowed” again (e.g., meeting in groups of more than five persons), the media and governments presented it as a “gift” to citizens.
That was not an accidental display of chutzpah; governments have a poor record of ending the temporary measures taken in extraordinary circumstances. For example, in 1991, Germany levied a special solidarity charge on income tax, known as “Soli,” to help finance the country’s reunification. Today, Germany is one again, yet the charge remains in the books and enriches the general budget.
Unfortunately, many citizens are frustrated and have lost their motivation to speak out.
The Covid emergency has also led to a much larger role for government in the economy. This is to the long-term detriment to business and, by extension, productivity, innovation and general prosperity. Also, the excessive money creation, taking place under the pretext of helping the economy recover from the Covid crisis, will harm the value of money and hurt savers. This process leads to nationalizations, expropriation of business and limitation of property rights.
Grants to alleviate the economic damage are extended under arbitrary conditions. Many businesses ruined by the lockdowns may end up being replaced by institutions strongly influenced by the state. Together with limiting possibilities to speak out (political correctness in the mainstream and “ethical” censorship in social media), this development leads democracies and free societies in the direction of a technocratic, authoritarian system. The “Great Reset” project of systemic change launched by the World Economic Forum is already setting the pace
Where it all may lead
Unfortunately, many citizens are frustrated and have lost their motivation to speak out. Once, people were ready to sacrifice their lives to gain or protect freedom; today, the remote possibility of dying from the coronavirus seems sufficient for most to surrender their autonomy.
In the 1968 dystopian movie “Planet of the Apes,” intelligent apes tyrannize mute, disenfranchised humans. Humankind is locked up, and the remaining free humans are hunted down. A gorilla represents the power of the state (as the commander of the army and security forces), and a villainous orangutan stands for science, which legitimizes the state’s acts. Today’s collusion between politicians and virologists looks like coming straight from that classic film.
We do not doubt that governments have the responsibility to protect public health when an epidemic occurs. But freedom ought to be protected throughout the crisis. All special limitations and controls should be discontinued when the emergency passes. Unfortunately, governments, representative democracies included, cannot be trusted in this respect: their record of giving up “temporary” powers is not good. Contact-tracing technologies add another layer of danger to civil liberties: introduced on precautionary grounds as a condition for travel, they could allow total surveillance of people.
Even the so-called liberal democracies are vulnerable to this threat, as they already have been limiting freedom. Supranational organizations, which lack democratic legitimation, feel free to act as promoters of intrusive technologies. If these forces succeed, the coronavirus crisis could mark the final defeat of individual freedom. Humanity stands to lose its most precious asset.
A planet of the apes might become a reality, with people discriminated against for merely daring to point out alternatives. When adopted by entire societies, the three monkeys’ attitude opens the way for the government’s gorillas to assume total power with the orangutans’ help.