This too shall pass, and when it does we need a thoughtful, rational national debate about drafting emergency powers for future crises.
During this pandemic, and the resulting lockdown, certain ideas and concepts are being introduced and accepted by many citizens in a very short period of time. Almost all of these concepts are introduced by the government during the National State of Disaster. And yet, lockdown itself, levels of lockdown and the regulations (whether or not you can buy a T-shirt, etc) might be with us for some time to come. Worryingly, there has been no public consultation on any of it, a bad omen for a democracy.
The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince people that he did not actually exist, said the fictional character Keyser Söze. By convincing people he did not exist, the devil had a lot more freedom to commit evil. In some ways, the biggest, most important move involving the regulations under which we currently live, is that the regulations spell out what people are allowed to do, rather than what they are not allowed to do. Just that switch, subtle to most, could spell evil in the future.
And the importance of this is massive. It forces groups and individuals to have to motivate why they need to be allowed to do something, whether it be to cycle at 9.02 in the morning, or to buy alcohol, or to sell T-shirts; rather than just knowing what’s not allowed and enjoying the freedom of making up their minds on what’s best for them and their closest.
Yes, dear reader, that is how the laws of the Soviet Union and its satellite states were written. Not what you cannot do, but what you are allowed to.
In a country in which we are told we prize freedom (and there is plenty of evidence that we do), this does not make sense. As Business Unity South Africa’s CEO Cas Coovadia said on Thursday morning on SAfm, the onus, particularly for business, should be the other way. The government should have to prove the case against doing something, rather than citizens or businesses having to argue the case for it. That is what has been accepted up until now.
Certainly, in normal times, we should demand that those in government explain why a freedom is being taken away through the form of a regulation, not why we deserve to have that freedom.
The way in which this has happened is simple. The first cases of the virus emerged in Wuhan. China’s officials implemented a lockdown. This was seen as a success. And so, many other countries followed. In democracies, this is always controversial. But, as these lockdowns were implemented not many people objected. There seemed, at the time, to be no other options.
There were probably two reasons why this was accepted so easily. The first is that no one knew what the virus was, no one wanted to die from it, and no one wanted anyone they knew to be in danger. The danger was also unquantifiable. It was hard to know what measures were appropriate and which measures were not.
Secondly, it seemed that this would only be for a few short weeks. It does not feel like that anymore.
In the meantime, the idea of being “under lockdown”, of soldiers on the streets, empowered with regulations and aware that they can kill someone and not be suspended, can exact a grip all on its own. It can become, some will worry, the new “normal”.