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COVID-19 Quarantines: “This Is What a Police State Is Like”

Confronting Covid-19 across the globe, capitalist leaders have issued quarantine orders, imposed huge fines and jail time for violations, and deployed police and soldiers to enforce the decrees. Criminalization of leaving your home, gathering with others, and shopping for things the state decides you don’t need is a laboratory for capitalist repression that will surely endure beyond the pandemic’s end.

Scott Cooper

April 2, 2020
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President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines during a change of command ceremony in Manila in 2018 with Ronald dela Rosa, left, his national police chief at the time.Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, while the capitalists push to keep their nonessential businesses open and factories open so they can keep making profits — increasing the risk of infection for hundreds of millions of people. Meanwhile, the governments that serve capitalist interests are hard at work. But as presidents, prime ministers, governors, and others issue stay-at-home directives aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19, an increasing number of governments are seizing what they see as an opportunity to consolidate their power, establish a greater police and military presence in everyday life, and normalize new levels of control and oppression against the working class.

The examples continue to pile up from around the globe. And if these “emergency measures” seem necessary to control the pandemic, keep in mind that they are organized and administered by a class that is inviolably opposed to the interests of the great majority and whose default position is to criminalize behavior that is hardly criminal (consider drug use as an example that shouts from the rooftops). The response to this crisis would surely be handled differently were it under workers’ control.

Hungary Dismantles Democracy

Hungary may be the most transparent example, as even some in the bourgeois media have noted. Viktor Orban, that country’s prime minister, has been “dismantling” democracy there “piece by piece over the past 10 years,” reports Foreign Policy magazine. Orban himself has called what he has sought to create an “illiberal democracy.” But now, “Hungary has used the pandemic to abandon its last vestiges of democracy — and to dare the EU to do anything about it.”

On March 30, the parliament in Budapest passed an emergency law that gives Orban’s government indefinite, sweeping powers that surpass anything yet enacted in other European countries dealing with the coronavirus. He can now rule by decree, elections are suspended, the media has been brought under complete government censorship, and jail journalists “found guilty of spreading supposedly false information.”

But if Hungary has perhaps gone the furthest — at least so far — on the juridical front, other capitalist governments are flexing their muscles in the streets. Harsh measures are touted as critical to halting the spread of the virus.

France Demands That You “Show Your Papers”

In France on March 14, after President Emmanuel Macron banned gatherings of more than 100 people, security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) at their 70th consecutive Saturday protest. Three days later, the country went into lockdown, and the government further decreed that people would need an official certificate to leave their homes to go shopping or walk their dogs and another certificate to justify going to a workplace rather than working from home. This is draconian, as a report from Spectator United States makes clear:

These certificates are to be carried on your person at all times and produced on demand by the authorities. As of this morning “confinement” is being notched up again. Village and municipal food markets are to shut; leaving your house for shopping or exercise is limited to one hour and can take place no more than one kilometer from your home. The time of departure from your house is to be indicated on a certificate. Any infringement is to be punished by a minimum fine of €135 ($145), which rises to €1,500 ($1,615) for repeat offenders.

These measures are under the direction of Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister. He is reviled throughout France for his particularly brutal repression of the Yellow Vests, and Spectator United States reports further that he is very proud of how he and the security forces are doing in this new arena of despotism:

Five days into lockdown on March 21 [Castaner] boasted on Twitter about the achievements of his 100,000 police tasked specifically with enforcing “confinement”: 867,695 individuals checked by the police, 38,994 fines issued. He didn’t detail the hundreds arrested for the French crime of “endangerment” — putting other people’s lives in danger — punishable by six years’ imprisonment.

It should not be lost on anyone that there are people still living in France who can remember a Nazi occupying force that once routinely demanded of people walking the country’s streets that they produce their “papers.” Meanwhile, French confinement, states Spectator United States, “is now approaching house arrest for its 67 million citizens.” What a handy tool to have in the bag for when the working class begins to fight to recover everything it is losing during the pandemic.

Argentina Threatens Jail Time

While there are reports that the French government is dismayed that other European governments have not followed its lead, Argentina has been more than happy to institute similarly repressive measures. There, authorities have issued mandatory quarantines and are arresting people who do not follow the decrees. Anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 or is even suspected of either having the virus or having been in contact with someone who has it or is suspected of having it, along with anyone who the government suspects has recently visited a “high-risk region,” is subject to government-imposed isolation. It is easy to imagine the abuse of this “health measure” to suppress workers in factories or anyone else who doesn’t follow the rulers’ rules.

“I’m going to be inflexible on this,” President Alberto Fernández said on March 15. He added that “anyone who has to be in quarantine is going to follow it, and if they don’t, we’re going to pursue them criminally.” Prison terms for “defying measures” or “defying a public official” have been set at six months to two years, and there are reports of widespread house arrests — with trials to come later. And the national Ministry of Security has even established a telephone number so people can report on others whom they suspect of violating the rules.

The normalization of emergency health measures with these sorts of criminal components is moving full steam ahead, and has even been endorsed by people we’d expect to speak out against them. Nicolás Vinuesa, a criminal lawyer in Buenos Aires, endorsed the measure, telling Al Jazeera, “This isn’t just an infectologist telling you not to leave your house, or a national decree, which sometimes isn’t taken that seriously in this country. I think that in this case, if it serves to reinforce the social conscience, it’s not a bad measure.”

According to La Izquierda Diario, on March 31, “More than 33,000 people were arrested, and more than 500,000 criminal cases were opened throughout the country since the quarantine began.”

Brazil Widens Repression

Next door to Argentina, Brazilians have had to contend with a leader who, in the mold of Donald Trump, diminished the health threat for weeks. On April 1, the New York Times described the situation this way: “As coronavirus cases and deaths mount in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has remained defiant, the last notable holdout among major world leaders in denying the severity of the coronavirus.”

But even coronavirus denial hasn’t kept the Brazilian government from widening its repression against working people. As Bolsonaro has been accusing governors of the Brazilian states of “hysteria” and inflating coronavirus figures for political gain, attacking journalists for reporting news aimed at undermining his government, and calling the virus a “measly cold” — all shades of Trump — he also warned recently that the country “could break with ‘democratic normalcy,’ citing the risk of rioting and suggesting ‘the left’ could capitalize on any chaos.” Keep in mind that Bolsonaro, long before his election in 2018, was a staunch supporter of the military dictatorship that brutalized Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Meanwhile, while Bolsonaro’s inaction on the actual health front puts millions of Brazilians at risk, the criminal gangs that largely rule Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (the slums on the city’s outskirts) have taken steps to protect the people who are probably the most vulnerable in the country — even if in a more threatening way that most would prefer. Reuters reports this taking place in the “City of God” — the sprawling complex of favelas where the first coronavirus case appeared:

According to well-sourced Rio newspaper Extra, City of God gangsters have been driving round the slum, blaring out a recorded message to residents.

“We’re imposing a curfew because nobody is taking this seriously,” the message said, according to Extra’s Tuesday story. “Whoever is in the street screwing around or going for a walk will receive a corrective and serve as an example. Better to stay home doing nothing. The message has been given.”

The gangs’ concern over the outbreak echoes fears nationwide about the fate of Brazil’s nearly 15 million favela residents confronting what some have dubbed “the disease of the rich.”

While Bolsonaro dithers, dreaming of a return of the Fifth Brazilian Republic — as the military dictatorship was formally called — leaders in other countries of Latin America are taking steps that involve police and soldiers on their streets.

Bolivia Extends the Coup

In Bolivia, a coup d’état in November 2019 ousted the Evo Morales government and brought to power a new self-styled “transitional” but nonetheless reactionary government led by evangelical Jeanine Áñez, who immediately unleashed a wave of repression that has not ceased. Now the arrival of coronavirus provides this illegitimate government with an opportunity to solidify its gains in a national campaign to destroy working-class resistance.

With the declaration of a “state of health emergency,” quarantine in Bolivia is in effect until April 15. The decree employs Article 216 of Bolivia’s criminal code to increase the penalties for violating quarantine from 2,000 bolivianos (the country’s currency) to 10 years in prison. At the same time, Áñez increased the deployment of security forces into Bolivia’s streets, promoting “more active participation of the Armed Forces and the National Police in the fight against the coronavirus.”

The lockdown limits movements according to the numerals on the identity cards Bolivians are required to carry, with only one person per family allowed to go outside on one morning per weekday (weekends excluded) to secure food or other supplies. While the government has promised to provide minimal food to 1.6 million Bolivian families — forced to make the promise by demonstrators in the streets — there have been no specifics announced as of this writing. Instead, the only concrete response has “the Bible and bullets”: further militarization of the country and a call for “prayers, fasting, and repentance.”

Already, Bolivians desperate for food have begun to break quarantine and take to the streets in protest.

A Few Snapshots of Repression in Other Countries

I already mentioned in a previous article how the Israeli apartheid state is using the coronavirus pandemic to expand its repressive apparatus. On March 15, Shin Bet — the country’s internal security service — was given authority to track cell phones without a court order, ostensibly to keep track of the virus. A few additional examples of how repressive measures are playing out in other parts of the world should suffice to convince readers that this is a global phenomenon. As the New York Times reports in an article aptly titled “For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power”:

In some parts of the world, new emergency laws have revived old fears of martial law. The Philippine Congress passed legislation last week that gave President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers and $5.4 billion to deal with the pandemic. Lawmakers watered down an earlier draft law that would have allowed the president to take over private businesses.

“This limitless grant of emergency powers is tantamount to autocracy,” a Philippine rights group, the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties, said in a statement. The lawyers noted that Mr. Duterte had once compared the country’s Constitution to a “scrap of toilet paper.”

The Times doesn’t mention that some law enforcement officials in the Philippines were putting people who violate the national lockdown in dog cages. But it does note that the pandemic is being used “to crack down on dissent” in many other countries. For instance, “In Jordan, after an emergency ‘defense law’ gave wide latitude to his office, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz said his government would ‘deal firmly’ with anyone who spreads ‘rumors, fabrications and false news that sows panic.’” And in Thailand, Prime Minister Payuth Chan-ocha “has assumed the authority to impose curfews and censor the news media. Journalists there have been sued and intimidated for criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak.”

While the situation in the United Kingdom is less draconian, it is becoming increasingly worrisome as the beginnings of what one former judge calls a “police state” seem to emerge. “As Britons navigate their way around restrictions to try and contain the spread of the new coronavirus,” reports Al Jazeera, “there are growing fears that police officers are abusing their new powers.” Emergency legislation there “gave police the power to issue instant 30-pound ($37) fines to people who gather in groups of more than two people or leave their homes without good reason such as for work, food-shopping or exercise.”

Al Jazeera continues:

Some police have been accused of being overzealous by using drones to spy on people taking walks at nature spots and stopping dog-walkers from driving their pets to open spaces. There were reports they had even urged some shops not to sell Easter eggs because they were not essential items.

“The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform, they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command,” Jonathan Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court judge, told the BBC.

“This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

But aren’t quarantines enforced by the state’s repressive apparatus necessary to address the pandemic? If not, what approach should be taken instead?

Quarantine and Militarization versus Massive Testing

Across the globe, quarantines are being used to mask what the capitalist governments are failing at and what their decades of neoliberalism have wrought: health care systems diminished and dismantled to the point where they can no longer serve the needs of the populations; insufficient masks, ventilators, and other equipment desperately needed in the hospitals that still exist; the focus by for-profit pharmaceutical companies on “blockbuster” drugs that can earn at least $1 billion in sales, while ignoring medical preparation for pandemics such as coronavirus; and so on.

That said, the idea underlying quarantine is not, in and of itself, a bad one. After all, from a medical point of view, it is home confinement — the very thing public health experts with no political agenda advise, along with social distancing. Their objective is rational: control the spread of Covid-19 and prevent as many people from dying as possible.

But mass quarantine, militarized and repressive, cannot and will not solve the problem of contagion, especially when the virus is in its early stages. For that, massive testing is required. The example of South Korea, which many have called a “model” for how to confront Covid-19, shows this — putting aside the political reality that shows all the limitations of this “model” from a class perspective.

Massive testing is how public health experts can establish rational and orderly confinement and social distancing protocols that are based on science, not the needs of capitalism. But most of the capitalist states that are now instituting these repressive approaches, including France, refused to undertake massive testing until it was too late — at which point quarantine, military-style or otherwise, became the only option. In the United States, a murderous cabal in the White House twiddled their thumbs, knowing the virus was coming but refusing to ensure that there would be anything close to enough testing kits. And still, in France, Spain, and elsewhere, the amount of testing remains very low, and even health care workers at the highest risk have little or no access to tests for themselves.

Even with quarantine, these governments are failing to prevent the further collapse of their countries’ health care systems and the overwhelming of hospitals because the contagion was already quite advanced at the community level. The result will be tens of thousands of deaths, if not more, that could have been prevented.

The matter of testing will not be resolved by health systems that function primarily at the service of Big Pharma and neoliberal governments that have spent years tearing them down. Workers will need to take the reins.

Nevertheless, from Latin America to Europe and Asia, capitalist regimes will continue to use the coronavirus crisis to amplify the authoritarian mechanisms of state power. They will push the idea of being on a “war footing” and other military metaphors to normalize these mechanisms. If troops in the streets of the world’s great cities can become a feature of everyday life, even in ostensible “democracies,” the working class can be kept in check so much easier, or so the rulers reason. And they will need a way to quickly put down combative workers who are sure to rebel as the pandemic wreaks havoc on economies across the globe and the capitalists seek to push the full burden onto the masses.

Capitalist governments cannot help themselves: the opportunity to use their powers to restrict and even criminalize peoples’ movements is too valuable a laboratory for the kinds of repression they know they will need to exercise on behalf of their ruling-class masters. Enlisting those who are quarantined in the propaganda of this “war” is part and parcel of the game playing out: how much better it is for your neighbor to report you — as is being encouraged in Argentina — than for the security forces to have to take some action. The ideal situation for the rulers would be if they could trick us into adopting their repression as our own because we somehow think it is in our interests.

These examples bring into sharp focus the need for workers’ control not only of economic activity but also of the emergency measures themselves. In country after country, only the great majority — the working class and the oppressed — can ensure our health and safety. Only our class can ensure that confinement and quarantine serve the exclusive interests of fighting Covid-19, and that emergency measures in the face of the pandemic are not comingled with a bolstering of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist states.

We would be wise to recall what the great revolutionary socialists of the past taught about the true meaning of the capitalist state. In 1911, Leon Trotsky described the “entire state apparatus with its laws, police, and army” as “nothing but an apparatus for capitalist terror!” And as Lenin defined it in his 1917 work The State and Revolution, “The state is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.”

In no way is the capitalist state concerned with protecting us from dying.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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