Coronavirus and the police state

Some of the laws that have been enacted in recent weeks in response to the coronavirus are unprecedented. It’s now unlawful to do all sorts of everyday things, like venture out in public unless for a specific, government-mandated purpose, in ways that would be astonishing to our past selves just a month ago. This has affected both our individual lives, and our sense of public space. Dozens of people were fined more than $40,000 by Victoria Police for breaching stay at home order for organising a protest calling for the release of refugees in Melbourne. The protest complied with social distancing protocols (it was conducted in cars) and sought to highlight the plight of refugees detained, who are at real risk of contracting COVID-19. Victoria is one of many jurisdictions in which the government response to the health crisis has had a decidedly authoritarian bent.

It’s far too simplistic to say that laws passed in response to the crisis are a cover for the expansion of the police state, but it’s also hard to ignore this impression. There have been calls from all over the political spectrum for an increase in enforcement of rules, demanding that everyone stay at home. This has been accompanied by tut-tutting from countless journalists over irresponsible and foolish hoarding, coupled with pearl-clutching horror at the sight of a populated Bondi Beach (on the weekend following the defiant declaration by the PM himself that he would attend the football).

All this has laid the ground for a response to the pandemic that elevates the role of the police. To watch the news is to be told that the problem is not simply the virus, or the underfunded health care system, or the somewhat chaotic approach to public health policy (epitomised by Border Force failing to stop the one boat that actually mattered). Instead, the problem is everyday people who are committing crimes like going to the supermarket too many times, sunbaking and paddleboarding. Rule-breaking is now the ultimate offence, and the police are here to help – resulting in 22,000 calls to the COVID-19 hotline in a fortnight.

The crisis has created the perfect conditions for what Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine. As she has recently observed: ‘in moments of crisis, people tend to focus on the daily emergencies of surviving that crisis, whatever it is, and tend to put too much trust in those in power.’

Deference to authority in a crisis is understandable. In an era of conspiracy theories, it becomes responsible conduct to model. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s often treated as the best thing you can do to save lives. But this is also the moment to find space to talk about how authority should be held to account, because otherwise the society we are trying to save may not be the society we end up with after this is over.

So, while things may seem unprecedented, we have had glimpses of our present in the not too distant past. Back in February, which is a millennia ago in coronavirus time, Digital Rights Watch has published a timeline of legislation impacting digital rights in Australia since 2001, citing over thirty laws. There are many more possible entries that could have been included if we broaden the frame to national security generally – the full list of laws passed numbers closer to eighty-two. It represents a staggering amount of power granted to intelligence agencies and law enforcement that all started with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.

There is a tendency in liberal democracies in the age of neoliberalism to align policing with ideas about public safety. As social services have been cut over recent decades, and an underclass of insecure workers continues to grow, police have been called upon repeatedly to manage the fall out. Alex Vitale calls this a neoconservative perspective ‘that sees all social problems as police problems,’ meaning that they become the lead agency in dealing with social, economic and political problems. So rather than a public health system with the resources to rapidly scale up capacity, we rely on a healthy police force to enforce social distancing rules. Rather than social services that might be well placed to protect vulnerable sections of the population by helping them get groceries and other supplies, we have police at the ready to attend fights breaking out in supermarkets. This crisis has seen the scaling up of coercive capacities of the state, rather than those that are directed at care.

Normally, this coercive capacity is of little concern to conservatives and liberals. Chronic underfunding of our social welfare state. coupled with over policing are phenomena that tend to be experienced most sharply by the poor and socially marginalised. When the focus of law-makers is directed at a racialised underclass, there is little interest from the mainstream in resisting the power grab. For this reason, the passage of all of the national security laws in the decades since 9/11 was bipartisan.

It’s a lonely experience, defending civil liberties in this context, especially when the stated justification is to fight terrorism and paedophilia. For this reason, it can be hard to stomach some of the hot takes in conservative platforms lamenting the encroachment on civil liberties that has arisen due to coronavirus. There is a level of astonishment among these types that belies how easy it is to ignore over policing and mass surveillance when it’s happening to other people.

We are now presented with the opportunity to relax social distancing rules if enough of us download a contact tracing app which, from the little we know about it, appears to have the technical potential to usher in new, invasive forms of surveillance. ‘Coronavirus contact-tracing app to help set us free,’ was the headline in the Australian. It’s not hard to see the problems – the risks of false positives, the fact that any tracing would need mass testing to be useful, the hesitancy among the population to trust the government to do the right thing with the technical capacity and data it will be set to acquire.

This last point is hardly insignificant in a context in which a 40 per cent take-up rate is needed for the app to be effective. Two million people opted out of My Health Record due to privacy concerns. The Department of Human Services released personal information about a writer who was critical of the robo-debt program. If past conduct is the best guide to future conduct, this government has proven happy to make use of the personal information of users collected for a specific purpose to advance their political interests. Now they expect us to trust them to do the opposite, or be assured that the police will be barred from accessing the data.

In describing the passage of terror laws in the decades since 9/11, legal scholars have observed that ‘terrorism in one form or another has always existed, and will always continue to exist. Neither legislation nor anything else will be able to eliminate this threat.’ They argue that we need to think of alternative solutions to these problems other than power to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It’s possible to imagine that the threat of coronavirus, or some similar pathogen, may be a threat we never really eliminate.

Which is why it’s important to remember that it’s not the all-powerful state that is saving people’s lives from this horrible virus. It’s the everyday people showing up to work in hospitals and supermarkets, and doing shifts delivering food. It’s the millions of people who are doing their best to keep their distance, washing their hands, and trying to avoid transmission, while caring and educating others. It’s those people who are looking out for their neighbours, things that the government could do be better at organising if it wanted to, but is too preoccupied with its own interests. What will get us through this virus is not coercion and fear but advocating for and carrying out the politics of care and solidarity.

Even if a vaccine is found, it’s easy to imagine that politicians will continue to use health justifications for all sorts of invasive and coercive policies, or repurpose some of the capacities that are being currently developed for other causes. Now is the time to learn from previous crises, and rather than accede to the power grab, start to question motives, demand transparency and accountability, and take part in a genuine debate about credible alternatives.

First published on Overland