We must take drastic action but let’s not turn into a nation of little tyrants

Fear is pushing us into a dictatorial future. The only choice is what type of dictatorship. For now, we live with the dictatorship of a lockdown that imposes curbs on our freedom to work, move and socialise that are beyond the curtailment of civil liberties in the world wars.

For how long? Here in London, the centre of the British outbreak, you can fool yourself into believing the city will tolerate the lockdown indefinitely. Don’t believe the trashy stories about hordes of egomaniacs putting everyone else’s health in danger. The worst newspapers and TV channels are merely looking to incite pleasurable feelings of outraged self-righteousness. Their pictures of panic buyers cramming supermarket trolleys without a thought for others reflect a mere 3% of shoppers, retail market researchers found. Shelves were not empty because of endemic selfishness. The overwhelming majority of customers were buying a few extra items because they and their families must now eat every meal at home.

If you saw the shots of passengers crammed into the London Underground, apparently without a care for the spread of disease, they could be taken only because the service has been so reduced that a few people pack what trains are running.

The prevailing calm has been achieved without aggressive policing or, in most of the country, any visible police presence. Spanish police officers had issued 81,000 fines for breaking quarantine regulations by the middle of last week. British forces say they prefer “persuasion” and have confined themselves to warning day trippers to stay away from beauty spots.

We remain a self-policing society and not a police state. For how long, though, can any country shut down the economy, threaten the future of its businesses, the livelihoods of its population and the viability of its state?

What about the millions fearing or experiencing unemployment? The people trapped in flats that are now prisons? The women trapped with abusive partners? The shopkeepers and business owners who know government subsidies will not save them from rent demands? The young, whose education and employment chances are being jeopardised for a virus whose death rate could be 10 times higher than average for the over-80s? All will soon find their voice.

Do not underestimate, either, the listlessness that the pandemic is bringing. People will grow bored with their families, their cramped lives, and themselves – for it takes inner resources to cope when there is no one else for company. No one can put a figure on the ennui that isolation brings and log it alongside the number of business failures and job losses. But it will have as powerful a political effect, because it is so pervasive.

Neil Ferguson, the lead epidemiologist advising the government, says social distancing should ensure that the suffering will peak in three weeks. Then what? If we come out of lockdown in late April, the virus could spread again and we could be in a worse position than we are today. A vaccine is a year off, and in any case the virus could mutate.

Government scientists once suggested relaxing and then imposing lockdowns, as if Britain were a concertina that could be pushed in and pulled out as required. Ferguson gave a more plausible answer when he told parliament that “very large-scale testing and contact tracing” would allow the economy to restart once the peak had passed.

The professor was euphemistically describing the replacement of the blanket dictatorship of a lockdown state with what Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman grimly christened “the bio-surveillance state”.

Governments know they can pick only two of the following three options: limit deaths, revive the economy by lifting lockdowns, or defend basic freedoms. You only have to look around the world to see they have decided that basic freedoms have to go. They are using surveillance technology to confine carriers of the virus and their contacts to the modern equivalents of the medieval leper colonies or Victorian tuberculosis sanatoriums. Hong Kong enforces home imprisonment, monitored with digital tracking. Singapore requires citizens to download an app that allows the authorities to learn of their contacts, while Taiwan is using mobile phone data to put an “electronic fence” around infected homes.

The alternative to confining the ill is to hide away the over-70s and people with weakened immune systems. It has not been considered, anywhere. But you do not need a fevered imagination to picture a dystopia where the old must conceal themselves.

As with the lockdown, many will accept bio-surveillance graciously. Yet the division between the freedom of the well and the confinement of the sick or potentially sick will hurt. Leap forward a month, and you can see the state requiring citizens to produce documentation showing that it is safe for them to return to normal life or travel abroad. In just three days last week, and with barely a voice raised in opposition, parliament gave the state extraordinary powers to control freedom of movement, and then shut itself down.

“Temporary” powers in an emergency have a habit of becoming permanent. In these circumstances, paranoia appears more a necessity than a delusion. Yet it remains true that technology is not destiny. Politics counts for more than algorithms. Just as tyrannical governments, from Hungary to China, are using the pandemic to impose more controls, so democratic societies will need to show a liberal response to the virus.

It will matter that our police and prime minister do not want to be draconian and that the supreme court will hear urgent appeals by video link rather than running away as parliament has done. Most important will be how you and I behave. Will we turn into a nation of little tyrants vindictively calling for needless punishments? Or take the better course of accepting what dictatorial measures we must bear while reminding those in authority and in our neighbourhoods that a virus is not the only sickness that can ravage a free country.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist


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