I have found it amazing how quickly Governments, businesses and people have been able to take advantage and prosper as a result of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Companies selling products such as face masks, hand sanitiser, toilet paper, exercise equipment, puzzles, pizzas and alcohol were able to take advantage of increased demand often at outrageous mark-ups in online marketplaces. While businesses with on-line shopping services such as Amazon as well as video conferencing companies and streaming companies such as Netflix have been incredible winners.
No-one could have known that in an instant our world would change and that tourism and hospitality industries would crash and jobs considered stable such as airline pilots would collapse. Being in the right spot at the right time is not the problem, it is to take advantage of, to make use of for gain: to take advantage of an opportunity. to impose upon, especially unfairly, as by exploiting a weakness: to take advantage of someone that is the issue.
Misleading advertising, price gouging and shonky health claims were suddenly prolific tapping into consumer fears and targeting the vulnerable and desperate. Prices soared on many products as demand outstripped supply and businesses became strained with the inability to obtain supplies. Coronavirus has shown capitalism is alive and well, with some companies profiting from the pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak presents a unique combination of circumstances that is ripe for exploitation. With fears at an all-time high, people are looking to leaders to bring calm and order. And with a crisis of this magnitude, people want a quick, robust, and comprehensive national response that only a strong government can provide. Countries’ efforts to track the spread of the virus has also led to the collection of a massive amount of personal data. Smartphone tracking, such as the Australian Governments COVIDSafe app, could be critical for the legitimate cause of tracing the virus’s spread, but in the wrong hands, those powers could easily lead to abuse of civil liberties.
Aspiring strongmen in declining democracies around the world have been building power amid the crisis. James Lamond from the Centre for American Progress writes, “The Russian government has stepped up its surveillance capabilities amid the new rationale of enforcing a quarantine. This has included advancements in facial recognition software tied to a network of cameras to catch individuals breaking quarantine. There are now 178,000 of these cameras in Moscow alone, and an additional 9,000 cameras are to be set up this year. There are also ongoing operations that monitor social media for spreading false information about the outbreak.
Autocratic governments could easily use these new tools outside of the pandemic response in the future to further entrench themselves in power and crack down on dissent.”
The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t just threaten people’s health. It is also threatening people’s civil liberties across the globe. These restrictions can be roughly grouped into four categories: (1) enhanced surveillance powers, (2) suspension of rights, (3) control over information; and (4) delayed elections. It is certainly important to contain the spread of COVID-19 but once governments gain new powers, they don’t always give them back. The combined technology of tracking apps, facial recognition software, and drones can give a government virtually unlimited power to track its citizens. The aggressive deployment of these technologies must be held in check by sunset provisions, clear rules against their abuse, a system of independent oversight, and transparency.
Nothing written here is meant to imply the COVID-19 pandemic is not extremely serious or that strong government action is unwise. But the more frightening the situation, the greater the danger is that governments will take advantage of people’s fears to augment their own power, stifle any opposition, silence their critics, and maintain a monopoly on information. There has never been a more important time to heed the aphorism that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.