Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Covid could be a perfect alibi to reshape the free world

Writing this column the last time (The Coronavirus Outbreak Is A Crisis Of Globalization, 23 March) on the damaging effects of covid-19 on global trade, I had offered a passing remark on the likely political ramifications of the rise of this new disease: “Covid-19 is the perfect opportunity for authoritarians, and would-be authoritarians, to ratchet up surveillance on their citizens and simultaneously tighten their grip on power."

Events since that writing have, alas, borne out this prediction. The world over, both in the advanced and emerging world, incumbent governments are finding themselves reinvigorated politically in the fight against a global and national public health disaster of a type not seen in generations, and certainly not since the two World Wars. In the US, for instance, the embattled incumbent, President Donald Trump, is seeing his ratings soar, while his putative challenger, Democratic Senator Joe Biden, is marking his time on the sidelines.

In Canada, the minority government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—whose Liberal party actually lost the national vote share—now has parliamentary approval for an unprecedented law which gives the government the power to tax and spend without consulting parliament for a period of six months. In Germany, lame-duck Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was just about fading into the proverbial sunset, now has a new lease of political life, as she attempts to play the grand statesperson in pulling together a European response to the covid crisis.

Meanwhile, further east, Hungarian strongman Victor Orban has just been handed near-dictatorial powers to rule by decree by a supine parliament, all in the name of the fight against the viral disease. You can expect similar developments in other already autocratic and quasi-autocratic states.

Even democratic India does not seem immune, with the invocation of colonial era laws and stringent enforcement in some states of the 21-day lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to combat the spread of covid-19. This was also an opportunity to tidy up the remnants of anti-citizenship-law protests in Shaheen Bagh, a largely Muslim quarter of Delhi, an agitation that had already begun to lose steam in the absence of a political agenda in support of its demands. In the face of Modi’s tough position on fighting the virus through a nationwide lockdown, opposition parties have been little better than cheerleaders on the sidelines, with few of them challenging the merits of the nationwide lockdown. Many now are crying foul, but to have had any moral force, they ought to have highlighted the potential negative consequences earlier, not as an afterthought.

It is clear that the covid crisis, even after it passes, will leave a permanent imprint on our political economy, to say nothing of our society and its mores. We are never going to go back to the old normal, nor are we sure exactly what the contours of the new normal will be. Many spheres of life will be affected. In my own—university education—most major universities in North America are completing their winter semesters through online teaching, and in-person final exams have been cancelled, to be replaced by online and flexible testing alternatives. Now that students—and professors—have tasted the freedom of breaking their links with a brick-and-mortar campus, can there be any going back? I will wager that when classes resume in the fall season, electronic options may well become a standard alternative to in-class teaching.

Likewise, classical music lovers the world over have been regaled by an incredible variety of online streaming content, all of it available free, from some of the world’s top concert halls and opera houses. Sometimes, these are re-broadcasts of previously taped material, but, more often than not, these are new concerts performed to empty halls that are streamed live to global audiences watching on their electronic devices. It is evident that this economic model is not sustainable, enjoyable as it may be for music lovers at the present moment. At some point, venues will need to sell tickets to a paying public. And very few have the production values and celebrity status to sustain a subscription model for online viewership—the Berlin Philharmonic and New York’s Metropolitan Opera being two notable exceptions.

Whither the world of performing arts, thence the more quotidian world of in-person meetings. There used to be a time, not long ago, when a face-to-face meeting was always preferred for transacting important business; there were some conversations one did not have over telephone or messenger chat or video call. All of that has changed in the past few weeks, with major board meetings occurring electronically rather than in person, often for the first time in the history of the respective institutions.

Broadway theatres remained open during the great 1918 influenza epidemic. Now, not just Broadway, but all of New York City is essentially closed down. Even after the horrors of 9/11, normal life returned sooner than one might have expected. And while the global financial crisis ravaged the economy, it left the sociology of normal life relatively untouched.

All of this is to say nothing of the steady encroachment on civil liberties and the free market, with covid-19 the perfect alibi. Indeed, the worst may be yet to come after the immediate threat is behind us.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist

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