The power of narratives and the risk of surveillance creep in the response to Covid-19

Remember December 2019? That innocent age before our kids knew how to spell ‘Covid’, when all we were worried about was the terrible bushfires and the ongoing climate crisis? In only three months, the novel coronavirus has spread everywhere and all of us are engaged in a continual, rolling recalculation of its mind-boggling implications.

The virus may have emerged in China, an authoritarian state, but it doesn’t distinguish between political systems: democracy and dictatorship alike have staggered under Covid-19’s frightening spread.

Yet even as the crisis rages across the world, and the number of infections continues to increase, there’s a ferocious battle of narratives over which political system has mobilised the best response. As China declares no new local infections and goes on the offensive in the disinformation battle, US President Donald Trump pushes the ‘Chinese virus’ line in place of an effective, coordinated response.

Dozens of nations are in lockdown, infections keep climbing and a global recession looms. China was first into the pandemic, so it may be one of the earliest out.

A geostrategic risk out of all of this is that the perceived ‘lesson’ of the pandemic will be that authoritarianism works and democracy is chaos.

Anywhere you look, government is back, in a big way. Most national governments, both democratic and autocratic, have concluded they need to fight the virus by throttling the freedoms underpinning market economies.

But a preliminary picture is emerging: while extraordinary measures curtailing civic freedoms are evidently necessary for curtailing the outbreak in the absence of a vaccine, autocracy has no monopoly on an effective response. The lack of transparency and accountability, the restrictions on freedom of speech and the lack of a free media in authoritarian countries may in fact make things worse on the ground, as it seems to have done in China in the early days of the outbreak, with consequences we are all now living with.

More important in predicting the efficiency of a nation’s response might be whether it has a population and a public health system with a fresh memory of an epidemic, as in Taiwan and Singapore, which were hit by SARS in 2002 and 2003, and South Korea, which was hit by MERS in 2015.

In the past month, South Korea has managed to flatten the curve without resorting to China’s heavy-handed tactics. The death rate and rate of transmission have been dramatically reduced and the country’s approach has been hailed as an example to the world.

Analysis suggests South Korea’s mass testing (almost 360,000 of 51 million citizens tested) has been crucial in restraining the outbreak. Laws enabling aggressive contact-tracing enacted after MERS mean epidemiologists can act ‘like police detectives’ and quickly track down and quarantine infected people. Mass text messaging, effective public mobilisation and a nationalised healthcare system have also been important factors.

After the SARS outbreak, Taiwan empowered a central command centre for epidemics, implementing lessons from that crisis. Taiwan moved fast on Covid-19, establishing health checks for passengers from Wuhan in early January. It is employing a mobile phone location tracking system to keep people who’ve been exposed to the virus quarantined in their homes. As of 29 March, Taiwan—which has a population the size of Australia’s and much closer ties to China—had reported just 298 confirmed cases and two deaths.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told his people in a national address on 8 February that the experience of SARS had prepared them for the next epidemic. Singapore has a National Centre for Infectious Diseases, a stockpile of masks and other medical equipment, a cadre of trained medical personnel and strong research capabilities.

As of 29 March, the global transport hub had reported 844 cases and three deaths. It has cast aside privacy considerations, launching a public health app which creates a record of virus spread risks by analysing the Bluetooth connections of users’ phones. It’s been reported that those not using the app could be prosecuted.

China’s response earned praise from the World Health Organization (although the WHO itself seems to have been less effective as an advance warning system than we would all like), but elements of the Chinese response were troubling. After initially suppressing health workers’ reports of a terrible new lung disease, China locked down whole megacities. Early images showed people who had apparently refused quarantine being violently dragged from their apartments and Chinese drones rebuking unmasked pedestrians. Government censors, meanwhile, came down hard on any discussion of the virus or criticism of the authorities’ response.

An app linked to the popular payment system Alipay assigned tens of millions of Chinese users a green, yellow or red code based on opaque data the users were not aware of, the New York Times reported. Those without green codes, whether sick or not, found themselves arbitrarily forbidden from travelling anywhere, even, in some cases, from entering their own apartment buildings. The Times found the app shared user information and location data with the police each time it was used.

China claimed its first day with no new local infections on 18 March. This milestone presaged an all-out propaganda assault aimed at flipping the story of cover-up and rampant censorship and came amid rumblings of data-fiddling in time for President Xi Jinping’s first visit to Wuhan on 10 March. There are considerable question marks around China’s figures, and China doesn’t include asymptomatic confirmed cases in its final tally.

It’s still early days. The risk of a second wave of infections in Asia, including China, is real. The energy and focus should be on stopping transmission. But the narrative battle matters, because the pandemic risks shaping a more illiberal world.

The deaths and suffering from the virus itself, combined with extraordinary public health measures like isolating people in their homes, are likely to tip most of the world into an economic downturn, bankrupt innumerable small businesses, decimate industries and deepen inequality. All of these factors risk exacerbating existing impulses towards a dismal, nativist politics as fear heightens and nations turn inwards. Distrust in internationalism is likely to increase just as it’s most needed.

Leadership can make a difference to this bleak prognosis, as can tangible international cooperation at this time of crisis. But that kind of leadership has been in short supply so far.

The pandemic is also likely to hardwire our dependence on technology, making our reliance on digital connectivity so absolute that we become more willing to tolerate the downsides of life in a post-privacy age. Democratic governments may be tempted—or driven— to emulate the techniques of autocratic ones. Surveillance creep seems inevitable. The risk is that notions of ‘deviance’ will shift with political priorities: this year the government may want your data for a public health emergency; next time it might be because they don’t like your opinions.

The story of which system wins the battle against Covid-19 will have vernacular power around the world, and it seems likely that—even with strong, fact-based counter-messaging and clarity and transparency around democratic responses—great-power competition will accelerate and a more fractured, more dangerous world will result.