International relations, Law, National security, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

12 June 2020

From the United States to Asia, rhetoric has surrounded the COVID-19 crisis, but leaders must look past it, and seek to understand what it really takes for some of their people to be safe, Sally Tyler writes.

In separate corners of the globe, and at the same time, protests in the United States sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police turned violent, and the Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong was banned for the first time in 30 years.

It is no coincidence that these events come as the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that official government rhetoric responding to unrest everywhere has been couched in terms of safety and security.

Threats to individual safety come in a variety of forms – the virus, food insecurity, a knee to the neck, or a lone tank. The discerning public should look beyond a superficial concept of public safety, and analyse to what extent the global health emergency is being used to deflect attention from long-standing societal injustice, and how it may be used to justify power grabs aimed at squelching democracy.

For instance, curfews have been imposed in 40 American cities, with more than 5,000 National Guard members deployed in response to protests. Many urban areas resemble fortresses, without even creating an increased sense of security for the people who live there.

At a time when a fractured nation needs leaders to listen more than pontificate, President Trump tweeted ominously, saying ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’, a dog whistle to the country’s segregationist past. Such comments were reminiscent of the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, who instructed the police and military to shoot dead any violators of his coronavirus lockdown laws in Manila.

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President Trump followed this up by threatening the unprecedented use of military power against the American people, and then, apparently frustrated by the protests around the nation, attempted to bully governors into using force in their states by calling them weak.

In both the Trump and Duterte cases, leaders made threats against their own citizens under the guise of keeping them safe.

United States police and state officials have mostly acknowledged the right to protest and made small numbers of arrests, at least relative to the overall number of protesters. But in Minneapolis, the site of Floyd’s killing and origin of this wave of protests, officials repeatedly claimed that the violence was the work of ‘outside agitators’.

Although there is some indication that white supremacists posted on social media posing as antifa activists to urge turnout and deflect the responsibility for violence, evidence from arrests does not bear out the claim that the violence was solely the work of outsiders, as 47 out of 57 arrests on the first night of Minnesota protests lived in the state.

It is certainly not true that large numbers of people want to see businesses in their own communities destroyed, but it is misleading and simplistic to say that no local actors have been involved. Historically, the blanket charge of outside agitation has been used to mask real issues of dissent, and policymakers and the public should be critical of these claims, particularly if they are used to minimise the underlying issues creating unrest.

Individuals who participate in damaging their own communities know the costs, but are attempting to call public attention to their peril with drastic action. Inequalities made manifest when health inequities fueled by systemic racism make some more vulnerable to the coronavirus than others, and a society in which officers sworn to protect people seem intent on killing them, will drive people to great lengths to demand change. These people are screaming to the world that they are not safe.

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Yet, the paternalistic response by some officials has been to urge ‘good people’ to stay home from protests, and others fret publicly that protests may lead to new coronavirus outbreaks. Certainly, there is opportunity for virus transmission, but officials may miss the point that – for those whose existence is threatened on an ongoing basis – safety is relative.

Meanwhile, the need to enforce social distancing measures was cited as the rationale in Hong Kong for banning the annual 4 June remembrance of those who died in the Tiannamen Square uprising. Coming on the heels of China’s security order reining in Hong Kong’s autonomy, it seems apparent that the decision is more about protecting citizens from democratic reform than from the virus.

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia issued a joint statement of condemnation against China’s new security law, but have so far stopped short of sanctions against China.

So now the world waits for China’s next move in Hong Kong, and the walls appear to be closing in on pro-democracy protesters there. They have shown themselves to be nimble and resolute, and so may continue, but no one could legitimately argue that the new security measure makes them safer.

Keeping citizens safe is a central governmental responsibility, and in a public health emergency, this responsibility may entail infringing on essential liberties. If a government issues stay-at-home orders, it is obliged to ensure that people possess the fundamental security they need to comply with that order.

In many parts of the world, including the United States, daily labour is required by many simply to make ends meet. The pandemic only magnifies the stark reality of those who literally cannot afford to help keep their community safe, regardless of their intent.

Though originally blind to the needs and realities of its migrant workforce, Singapore is an example of responsive policy-making. It quickly absorbed that lesson when migrant dormitories became epicenters for outbreaks. Then, to its credit, the government responded by creating teams to supply these dormitories with food, medical care, internet communication, and entertainment so that they could remain at home and actively help contain the virus.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the phrase ‘stay safe’ has become a mantra in some quarters – newscasters use it to sign off from broadcasts, and some use the phrase to close emails to friends. But those words will remain hollow until everyone comes to terms with who is safe in our society and who is not, even if it means acknowledging that some in our midst are not even safe from their own government.

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