What world awaits after the COVID-19 crisis?
Around the world, states are working on what they consider to be the best model for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic – the worst global health crisis in 100 years. President Macron has declared that France is at war, President Trump has named himself the wartime president, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has compared the UK efforts against the virus to another Battle of Britain.
As a result, several states around the world have declared a state of emergency, activating measures they believe necessary to protect national security. While the policy responses to emergencies vary, they increasingly reflect a process known within political science as securitisation. Securitisation takes place when an issue is framed as an existential threat by an actor and then becomes accepted as such by the targeted audience. In short, securitisation is, at its most basic level, the process of turning something into a security issue. This enables politicians to justify their decisions to activate such extraordinary measures. We can see this process taking place during the current coronavirus crisis: states are utilising it to impose severe restrictions on citizen’s freedoms, privacy, and other human rights.
It is integral to delve deeper into the consequences that society may face due to the securitisation of COVID-19 and, in particularly, how it will likely impact businesses and travellers.
MASS SURVEILLANCE AS A ‘CORONA-CURE’
The application of modern technology and big data to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has become a prevalent in East Asia. Taiwan and South Korea have all been commended for their disease response and have efficiently been using big data to control the spread.
Taiwan has been using mobile data to track individuals infected with coronavirus to ensure that they respect the rules and remain in quarantine. Furthermore, the data also helps to identify those who may have been exposed who may have been exposed to contaminated individuals. Extraordinarily, authorities are receiving alerts if an individual’s phone is turned off for more than fifteen minutes. If this happens, the owner is paid a visit and reprimanded.
In Singapore, an app is being used to monitor those infected while Bluetooth is employed to track distance between people (Denmark is currently in the process of developing a similar app).
South Korea has been using a combination of data from credit card transactions, surveillance footage, and geolocations from phones to locate and send out warnings directly to the public about infected people in the vicinity.
In Russia, the corona-crisis has put the state’s newly purchased facial recognition system in Moscow to the test. The Russian authorities have already announced that they are prepared to further develop its surveillance methods in order to detect and map virus patterns.
Western countries are taking similar measures. Israel, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Norway are using mobile data to ensure that their populations comply with the restrictions on movement and social distancing. In Poland, should you test positive for corona, you are required to download an app that regularly requests that the patient confirms their location. In the United States, some states have taken inspiration from China, employing drones to monitor the public and give them instructions about social distancing.
As illustrated, the framing of COVID-19 as an existential crisis has created a window to implement new and far-reaching surveillance technologies. Experts are increasingly agreeing that COVID-19 is here to stay, at least as a seasonal respiratory disease. This is critical to the securitisation process as it makes it difficult to determine whether there can be desecuritisation of the crisis. In other words: when can the extraordinary measures be rolled back? When are they no longer justified?
These are pressing and salient issues. As it remains difficult for the general population to monitor to what extent surveillance measures are being returned (or not) to the level before the crisis, there is a significant need for those in power to be regulated. Some states, for instance, may want to continue collecting data for other purposes and therefore allow the potentially draconian measures to stay in place.
AUTHORITARIAN OPPORTUNITIES, DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGES
Two further measures are being used to counteract the spread of COVID-19: restriction on movement and the increased control of information. Concerns have already been raised by those who believe that certain states are pursuing such measures for political ends. In Hungary, for instance, the parliament has approved a so-called “coronavirus law”, allowing the government to bypass parliament by extending the current state of emergency indefinitely. The law will also introduce heavy sentences for publishers of “false information” about COVID-19 and the government’s measures against it.
In Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria, restrictions imposed as a result of coronavirus have helped authorities finally put an end to the ongoing anti-government protests, enabling the ruling elites to regain control of the situation. At the same time, internet shutdowns and phone restrictions have been reported in both India and Bangladesh. While this signifies dangerous repercussions for freedom of speech, it also inhibits the population from receiving important and potentially lifesaving information about disease prevention.
Thus far, the pattern is clear: states with a predisposition towards authoritarianism are the ones most likely to manipulate this crisis in a way that increases pressure on democratic values and rights. The securitisation of the COVID-19 crisis has consequently proven to be a golden opportunity for political leaderships to increase state power and control.
Nevertheless, the coronavirus is also challenging societies considered democratic and liberal. Elections around the world are being postponed or delayed. Local elections have been delayed in Italy, Serbia, and the UK, while several state-level presidential primaries in the US have also been pushed back. It is likely that the elections planned later this year in Mongolia, Poland, and Malawi will also be postponed Given the high concentration of people at elections, postponement is the logical step.
Securitisation is a political process and political elites are likely to disagree on the balance between continued securitisation and desecuritisation of the crisis. Also, it cannot be ruled out that their preferences are likely to depend on what they deem most convenient for themselves. In states dealing with poor democratic structures and increasing political polarisation e.g. the US, this be a cause for concern. In the short term, there is a risk of increased civil unrest that may consequently create volatile and precarious situations if the restrictions are not lifted.
RISE IN EXCESSIVE USE OF FORCE
On the African continent, several states are employing the military to enforce preventative measures; in many cases, situations have turned violent. In South Africa, military personnel have used rubber bullets and teargas against homeless people and crowds that violated the imposed regulations and restrictions. The military has also been actively engaged in the emergency measures taken in Iran, Israel, and Peru. In Rwanda and Zimbabwe, deaths have been reported as a result of heavy-handed police and military brutality. On the east coast, Kenya has introduced a curfew in the poorer neighbourhoods, thus depriving the local population of access to food, water, and sanitation. Reports of excessive force being used to enforce the curfew are becoming more prevalent. In Nigeria, a particularly striking statistic was released which showed that more civilians have been reported killed by the security forces than by the coronavirus.
Public humiliation has become another strategy used by security forces. In India, it has been reported how migrant workers have been sprayed in public with bleach as an attempt to disinfect them before going back home to their provinces. In Paraguay, curfew violators are forced to lie in the street and confess to being enemies of the public, while Philippian violators have been trapped in dog cages or forced to sit in the midday sun as punishment. Currently, more than 17,000 have been arrested in the Philippines for lockdown-related violations.
As aforementioned, the most disproportionate and excessive measures are being implemented in states with authoritarian tendencies or weak institutions. In these countries, the public itself is being treated as a threat to national security. This is critical from an ethical and security perspective. The continued use of excessive force will create various forms of resistance that may escalate into further violence.
COVID-19 CALLS AUTHORITY INTO QUESTION
It must be noted, though, that securitisation is not a process reserved exclusively for the state; a plethora of different actors can compete in securitising or desecuritising an issue. As opposed to most other states, Brazil has not been busy implementing strong measures against the virus. This has led the criminal gangs in Rio de Janeiro to impose their own “coronavirus curfew” in the city’s favelas. Significantly, by assuming the role of providers and caretakers, the gangs are likely to strengthen their legitimacy. In a similar vein, Brazilian governors have also begun to impose restrictions throughout their states as President Bolsonaro refrains from taking national action.
In Russia, President Putin is also reluctant to take control of the crisis. For now, it is up to the local governors to decide what measures they find fitting, a worrying development in a state system in which the governors are personally selected by the president himself. They are, as a result, more interested in pleasing the president than taking responsibility for their local populations.
In the US, President Trump has been zigzagging between desecuritising and securitising the crisis. The sluggish and often apathetic response has resulted in increasing conflict between governors and the president, tensions which were further exacerbated after a tweet from the president prompted the populations in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia to defy the corona-related restrictions.
The securitisation is, in many ways, a risk to political elites. Should the population lose their trust in the authorities, the latter will lose legitimacy. However, the opposite may also ring true: attempting to desecuritise an issue that has been heavily securitised by others may also engender a lack of authority, trust, and general dissatisfaction in the population. As demonstrated, the COVID-19 crisis holds a great deal of potential to shift the distribution of power.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE BUSINESSES AND TRAVELLERS?
Experts affiliated with the United Nations have been voicing their concern about the emergency measures taken by several states and warn that these should not be used by governments for political ends. Common to most measures is that they have been established without an expiry date. It should be expected, therefore, that some are likely to stay and, as such, the political, social, and economic consequences will be profound. The potential consequences of securitisation mentioned above e.g. increasing violence, civil unrest, and repression of rights, will undoubtedly affect businesses and travellers. It will be important for businesses to determine how these risks may potentially affect their assets. We recommend considering the following trends:
POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT: How may political changes and possible regulatory changes affect the prospects of conducting business?
IT SECURITY: How may a decrease in privacy affect the IT security of your company e.g. concerning the risk of industrial espionage?
PERSONAL SECURITY: How may an increase in civil unrest, repression of rights, decreased freedom of speech and increased surveillance affect the security of expats and travellers, especially within journalism and humanitarian work?
It will also be important to consider how foreigners and non-natives will be received once travelling is resumed. As states will cautiously begin to open their borders there is little doubt that foreigners will be met with suspicion, viewed as potential virus carriers. Anti-sentiment towards foreigners from areas severely hit by the virus is likely to increase. Multinational businesses should consider how to prepare expats and travellers for these changes.
TRAVEL AND LOGISTICS: How might travel and logistics be resumed responsibly and what new regulations may be met?
Regulations may differ from state to state, making travel more laborious and time-consuming. Moreover, foreigners will likely be obligated to carry documentation regarding their health alongside their usual travel documents.
COMPLICATIONS RELATED TO A TRAVELLING WORKFORCE: How do current travel procedures fit with the post-corona world and what complications are likely to arise related to the travelling workforce?
CHANGE IN RISK ASSESSMENT OF DESTINATIONS: How may risk levels have changed and how may that influence work-related travels? Certain states may be perceived as riskier destinations due to two reasons. Firstly, individuals will retain health-related anxieties due to the crisis. Second, the political and social consequences of the virus may act as a repellent to future travellers.
Although we cannot say exactly what awaits after the COVID-19 crisis, we do know that businesses are very likely to be facing a new environment in which there will be new risks and considerations to take into account when it comes to the safety of their travelling personnel.