Army, police may help stop the spread of Covid-19, but we must stay watchful of Big Brother

By Published On: 2nd April 2020

Like the fall of the Berlin wall or the stock market crash of 2008, the novel coronavirus, or Covid-19, is a pandemic that will likely have shattering and long-lasting consequences.

This much is certain: the virus has devastated lives, disrupted markets and revealed to us the competence (or lack thereof) of governments around the world. Moreover, it has exposed the fallibility of our governing and economic systems and demonstrated how spurious each is during a global crisis that makes little distinction between class, race or any other socially constructed barrier.

Without a doubt, the Covid-19 will lead to permanent shifts in political and economic power that will become increasingly apparent as the pandemic abates. The Covid-19 was first noted in December 2019 when China alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to several cases of unusual pneumonia in the city of Wuhan in the Hubei province. Since that time, the virus has spread and infected thousands of people worldwide, with the number of infections increasing exponentially each day. As a response, the WHO, in partnership with governments, have released numerous steps that can be taken to protect against infection and have provided extensive technical support and guidance.

However, these steps were criticised as being inadequate and politicians have begun to perceive of the Covid-19 pandemic as a national security issue. We have seen politicians in the US, France, and more recently South Africa’s own President Ramaphosa – clad in military fatigues – declare war on the Covid-19. More world leaders are employing war discourse and describe the crisis we live through as a time of war. In correspondence with this rhetoric, more and more governments have begun to securitise this health pandemic, and this raises multiple concerns for scholars of Security Studies.

Securitisation refers to the process through which an issue is presented as an existential threat that requires more emergency measures than normal, and which may include military intervention. Across the globe, securitisation is already underway: China has begun to utilise military technology in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, and even countries as varied as Jordan, Italy and El Salvador have deployed thousands of service members in their streets.

South Africa is no different. During President Ramaphosa’s recent national address on the Covid-19, he informed the country that the South African Defence Force (SANDF) would be deployed to assist the South African Police Services (SAPS) in enforcing national lockdown regulations, safeguard our national border and ports of entry, and conduct cordon and search operations. As has been put to the nation by the Minister of Defence, Mapisa-Nqakula, the SANDF will play a humanitarian role in accordance with Section 18 of the Defence Act 42 of 2002 that permits the military to, ” … preserve life, health or property in emergency or humanitarian relief operations,” and to, “support any department of state, including support for purposes of socio-economic upliftment”. The inclusion of the SANDF in the struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19 was inevitable in a country that has low medical and laboratory capacity and an overburdened police and emergency services sector.

In addition, a large percentage of South Africa’s population live with chronic sicknesses and compromised immune systems, and the escalation of containment efforts may have been necessary to flatten the curve. And for those who did not take seriously the magnitude of this crisis, the presence of the military may solidify in their minds that these times are dangerously abnormal and may pressure them to remain in their homes.

However, the deployment of military troops is still a startling way to keep people indoors and raises the question about how its impact could extend well beyond the end of the Covid-19 as the South African government decides when – and if – to cede the extraordinary powers endowed to them by this global pandemic. It is not uncommon for governments to hold on to the autocratic power given to them during times of crises: the United States continues to use the surveillance technologies it developed in the immediate wake of 9/11 at the same level of intensity.

Moreover, we are already witnessing how political leaders exploit the pandemic to further their own interests: in Israel, most notably, Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu had his arraignment on corruption charges postponed. In Bolivia, a widely criticised interim government postponed its May elections following a slate of emergency measures. While it is imperative that citizens are safeguarded and the spread of the Covid-19 is contained, it is equally imperative that the abuse of power not be tolerated or forgotten about as is almost always the case during times of crises.

Communicable diseases have become the latest in a long line of non-military issues to be securitised (think of South Africa’s war on drugs or Operation Fiela), because it carries with it the threat to undermine a nation’s stability. Already, the viral pandemic’s impact on populations, economic structures and political systems has been monumentally devastating. While the securitisation of the Covid-19 may help contain the spread of the virus, it does not address or resolve the underlying issues related to healthcare, late capitalism, and gross environmental exploitation, to name a few. Instead it allows governments extraordinary power to surveille, restrict and repress citizens.

It is, thus, the responsibility of each person to remain watchful over their governments; to not be overly distracted by the pandemic to the point where legislation that further advances governments’ powers are accepted and passed without question or push back. It is imperative that this time in lockdown be used to hold our government more accountable and demand greater transparency. Corruption thrives in times of crisis, particularly when oversight over institutions is weak and public trust in institutions is low.

In other countries, human rights abuses are already happening as governments revert to draconian laws and practices that see those suspected of having the Covid-19 be surveilled, detained and/or disappear, not unlike South Africa whose own Department of Communications is now working with cellphone companies to track South Africans’ movements. Already, civil-military relations in South Africa remain fraught with tension and deep trauma, and the presence of the SANDF for 21 days will induce anxiety in a country whose most vulnerable have always been hyper-exposed to the brutalities of the country’s security forces.

Ideally, the world after the Covid-19 would be one that is radically progressive and prioritises the health and well-being of all by ensuring that every person has access to adequate healthcare. It is a world in which public health trumps corporate interests. And it is a world in which governments are transparent and accountable to the citizens they serve.

However, it is, also, just as likely that the new world after Covid-19 is one in which more centralised authority is the norm; where freedom is curtailed and Big Brother watches over us all.

Danielle Hoffmeester is a project officer with the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town

Article first published on News24

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