In recent months, a raft of new measures have been introduced by governments in the name of fighting COVID-19. Increased government funding is widely accepted as necessary, but new measures that wind back democratic rights are far more controversial.
Most parliaments have been suspended, and some elections have been deferred. A number of jurisdictions have imposed ‘states of emergency’ which allow for the suspension of many normal procedures.
State and federal governments have implemented strict lock-downs, border closures and forced quarantines. Heavy fines, and even imprisonment, can be levelled at anyone found to be breaking the rules.
There’s no doubt that physical distancing is helping to combat the spread of the virus, but the draconian nature of some of these changes goes far beyond what’s required.
Most people hope that the more repressive measures will not have to be used, and that they’ll just be temporary. But already we can see that the police are not using caution, and there are precedents that suggest the changes could be more long-standing.
Police in most states have already issued hundreds of on-the-spot fines, most in excess of $1,000. There have reports of people being fined for sitting in parks alone because they were not out for an ‘essential’ reason. It’s clear that governments see these laws as revenue-raising opportunities.
The vast bulk of people have been trying to the right thing, but some confusion exists. And it hasn’t been helped by the mixed messages people have received.
On the one hand people are told to adhere to strict distancing rules, but then authorities say that construction sites, mines and offices can remain open. In many of these workplaces physical distancing is impossible. The contradiction is not accidental, it’s a case of governments prioritising the needs of big business.
Most laws introduced by the major parties are designed to benefit the rich and powerful. It’s these laws – and the state apparatus of the courts, police, prisons etc – that allows the top 1% to rule over the rest of us. In times of crisis the ruling class tend to lean on the state and demand that it plays a bigger role.
Some premiers have suggested that they have been forced to impose stricter measures because people haven’t stuck to the rules, but that just isn’t true.
While it was disappointing to see a few instances where people gathered at beaches and parks in numbers that made distancing impossible, this was an exception and not the norm. Most people are going above and beyond to do the right thing.
The main culprits when it comes to the spread of this virus are the governments themselves. They are the ones who underfunded the health system. They are the ones who made decisions to let passengers off cruise ships, and they are the ones who are allowing non-essential businesses to run.
Focusing on a few people who were out getting some fresh air and exercise is just an attempt to deflect responsibility.
In addition to the fact that the police are using their new powers arbitrarily, there is also a concern that these laws will stay on books for the long term. That worry is real considering that a number of other anti-democratic measures introduced in the past – like the anti-terror laws – have not been withdrawn.
The danger is that theses types of laws can be used to stifle legitimate dissent. This has already happened with police using them against refugee rights advocates in April. The activists were protesting against the detention of asylum seekers who were being held in crowded rooms.
While the real crime was the unsafe forced containment of people, the protesters themselves were fined for breaching physical distancing rules. One activist was arrested and 26 others were fined more in excess of $40,000!
This incident should act as a warning. With everyone expecting harder times ahead, you can bet that governments will be reluctant to give up any extra powers. While today they are used against marginalised groups, tomorrow they can be used against people demanding jobs, welfare or rent relief.
The alternative to repressive laws is education. People can be convinced to adhere to distancing rules voluntarily. If this was done in conjunction with a big expansion to public healthcare, real mass testing, the supply of protective gear and widespread cleaning, we would have no need to fine people for minor breaches.
Socialists say that our democratic rights needs to be extended, not curtailed. Instead of big business-backed governments making decisions with profits in mind, workers and local communities themselves should decide what measures are needed and how they should be implemented.
By Anthony Main