Police State Scenario Covid-19

Privacy & Autonomy in the Digital Age: Emerging RisksThe coronavirus “pandemic” feels like some kind of turning point for humankind in terms of individual autonomy. I perceive that the response to the emergence of the virus is asymmetrical to its actual health threat, and this is leading people around the world to relinquish their individual rights on a scale I have never seen before.

This post discusses this event (a sign in semiotics) within the context of privacy and autonomy in the digital age. My discussion is not a conspiracy theory as I find those pointless and disempowering. I link various technology and social happenings and place their significance within the context of human nature. I also reference some neuroscience to help you understand the situation at a new level. I conclude with suggestions for action.

Privacy and Autonomy in the Digital Age is a series I’m writing to share my insights into disruptive risks that we face, individually and collectively, due to the digitization of the world. As I wrote in Part1, my technology adoption crystal ball says that the convergence of pervasive digital data, smart devices and their centralized [cloud] control enables unprecedented surveillance and control of people at a very low cost while Part2 offered various suggestions for mitigating the risks. Here in Part3, I discuss ways that collective permanent loss of autonomy could unfold. By the way, one of Deloitte’s scenarios included similar themes (link below).

Grounding Facts About Coronavirus

I have drawn much of this information from Wikipedia, which also cites organizations like the World Health Organization and the CDC, along with two well known newspapers. I have provided links to several articles below and encourage you to dive into details.

  • Coronaviruses are numerous and common; their symptoms usually manifest as the common cold and/or flu. Each of us has had many of them over the years.
  • Some coronaviruses are more serious than others, and “Covid-19” is one of those. The Coronavirus disease article puts Covid-19 into context by comparing it to other diseases, namely SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
  • The Covid-19 article summarizes the 2019-2020 pandemic pretty well, without hyperbole.
  • On March 27, 2020, the New York Times compared Covid-19 with the flu:
    • In the current season, the flu has 34 million cases and 20,000 deaths (0.06%)
    • Covid-19 has 90,000 cases and 1,400 deaths (1.5%)
  • On March 10, 2020, in its comparison of Covid-19 with the flu, the Washington Post wondered, “So why the nationwide coronavirus frenzy?” Their conclusion: fear of the unknown.
  • Almost all severe and fatal cases of Covid-19 have affected people with weakened immune systems, which usually co-occur with diseases like diabetes and heart disease as well as advanced age. In this, Covid-19 is similar to any other health challenge. It’s important to accommodate this growing portion of our populations.

Facts About Our Loss of Autonomy

People worldwide have lost more autonomy more quickly than I have ever seen, and this merits some reflection. Of course, these things vary with the locale, but they are fairly consistent.

  • We are under a kind of house arrest: yes, in most locales, we have the right to leave our homes to buy food and medicine and to walk our pets.
  • We have lost the freedom to assemble: no groups larger than ten people are allowed in most locales.
  • We have lost our jobs and businesses: most local businesses have been forced to close, and many will never reopen. The whole country is “for let (rent).”
  • We have lost the freedom to travel: it is difficult to travel beyond local. Some states ban travel almost entirely (see Michigan).
  • We have lost the ability to meet people. Friends of mine who are looking for romantic partners have been forced online, which they had deserted long before because it didn’t work. Businesses that depend on meeting people to find new clients, or job seekers, are similarly forced online.
  • We have lost the freedom to enter many stores: we must wait in line, even in inclement weather, to buy food.
  • We have lost the freedom to relate spontaneously. So-called social distancing is enforced at food and drug stores. These are nudges that suggest that we cannot trust our fellow humans.
  • We risk losing autonomy over our bodies: there is serious talk in some quarters of mandatory vaccinations with experimental drugs with relatively little research behind them.

All this happened with very little consultation or resistance. Governments made these mandates with no public debate. Some countries instituted martial law, and most countries instituted a mild form of it as described above. Yes, I understand that there was no time for debate; China was the only country that had any data at all, and its government is not trusted by many other governments, so they acted. But now we have time, and my purpose here is to reflect on what we’ve given and what we’ve gained.

Reviewing these facts, I perceive that all people have given away a huge amount of their autonomy to combat a risk that is quite low.

The Covid-19 Phenomenon Within a Pervasive Digital Context

As I wrote in Why Conspiracy Theories Are a Losing Game, I don’t subscribe to theories that assert that any group of people is following a pre-meditated plan for taking away our autonomy, but the point of this series is that pervasive digital technology is changing the cost and nature of controlling people while human nature is relatively constant. In brief, I think that there is a significant risk that our decisions now will have a much deeper impact than it may appear. Here is what I mean.

I observe that there are always people around who want power and control over other people. As social animals, primates want more opportunities to thrive, and controlling others serves this end and biological drive. Some power-hungry people in history were very calculated while others were gifted at capitalizing on events around them ahead of other people and seizing the advantage.

The global asymmetrical response to Covid-19 is a potential opportunity for power-hungry people. The fact is that our response has transferred power to governments. This transfer of power is supposedly temporary. I think it’s critical for us to recognize this transfer of power.

Another key point is that this transfer of power was driven by fear, but it makes sense when one considers the Reptilian brain and its Security Ethic. The Reptilian is about survival, and when it is active, it crowds out other parts of our brain (the Neocortex and the Limbic System). Security trumps our other brain systems. It’s not “logical” in the abstract sense. It will do anything to survive when it feels threatened as many people do now.

Although a useful neurological mechanism, fear results in poor outcomes when it drives decision making (see Complex Systems, Predictions and Strategy/Watts).

If we are not careful, it is possible that our current situation could become permanent and more controlled. How could this happen?

Scenario: How Fear of Covid-19 Could Enable Police States

Governments around the world implemented “shelter in place” programs with negligible discussion or resistance from their populations. This action has made millions of people more dependent on governments since people’s jobs have been permanently lost, and governments have activated rescue packages. This could develop into a kind of guaranteed base income in which people are permanently dependent on governments to live.

The possibility that Covid-19 will reemerge is significant. Since the virus appeared late in the season in the northern hemisphere, the virus ran out of time; however, since it emerged worldwide, the chance is fairly high that it will reemerge in Fall 2020. If this happens, governments will tend reinstitute current conditions, and this will happen fast since the mechanisms are already in place.

Therefore, we should consider this scenario and what we would want should it materialize.

Since spontaneous gatherings are all but eliminated, we are all more dependent on news media. The “fake news” phenomenon suggests that it can be difficult to gauge the “truth” of information we receive via controlled media (including social media). Anything digital is more subject to control than its analog counterpart.

“Shelter in place” tends to make us more passive, dependent, isolated, and limited. Many people cannot work and their possibilities to create any initiative are very limited. The risk of exceptionally serious economic consequences is high.

The chance is high that large parts of the economy will be permanently eliminated (small retail, studios, beauty salons, restaurants, garden stores). This would require a significant portion of the population to learn new (online) jobs that would emerge slowly. We would probably have a guaranteed base income by default. This would have millions of people permanently dependent on government.

Governments already mandated shelter in place, so it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which control deepens, i.e. curfews, overt media control, etc. It is easy to imagine them doing it with no resistance by seeding media with threats, then offering to protect people through new limits. These mechanisms are in place now.

I do not expect a police state to develop; I only observe how close we are to a situation like it already.

Considerations for Action

Many Businesses Live In FearIn Part2, I suggested several concrete steps for strengthening community, notably getting more involved in government. I think it is crucial now to formulate what risks we want to accept and what freedoms we are willing to give up. Let your representatives know. If you are concerned about this, get attention, and be vocal about your concerns.

Many Businesses Live In Fear: symptom 2For most of you reading this, catching coronavirus means a week or two of being sick to some degree. And then you are done with that strain of the virus in most cases. As more of the population gets and vanquishes the disease, it will become less of a threat. Yes, data are all over the place about whether people who have had the disease actually recovered or not. But our experience with similar illnesses shows that our immune systems will learn.

Many Businesses Live In Fear: symptom 3It is also crucial to consider sensitive populations, which represent an increasing portion of the total in many locales. They will require special consideration; for example, “seniors only” shopping hours. We can get creative to help various populations retain their autonomy.

Many Businesses Live In Fear: symptom 4Governments have maximized their responses, but we could guide them to use more nuance. For example, we could change our attitude away from treating all people and towards treating sensitive populations (this is already in place in many locales). Included in this is fostering the idea that most people should accept that they will eventually get the virus and let their immune systems take care of it.

Many Businesses Live In Fear: symptom 5The panic of large portions of populations has stretched resources of all kinds, so it’s been important to marshall them carefully. We could de-stress resources by normalizing being sick with the virus.

Many Businesses Live In Fear: symptom 6We can support each other in not succumbing to fear and anger: work with government and parties/organizations of all kinds. If you mistrust people, they become less trustworthy. Along with this, be mindful of us and them thinking, in yourself and others.

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