Stuck between the virus and a trap

Every time a crisis happens and the government asks for people’s help, that is the time to reach for your wallet.


Imran Jan April 16, 2020
New York City during the Covid-19 lockdown. PHOTO: REUTERS

Americans and people all across the world are stuck between the virus and a trap that is being set for them but they do not realise it yet. Apple and Google, the traditional rivals of the tech industry, have raised many eyebrows by teaming up to counter the Covid-19 pandemic. They are working towards creating a system that will track people who may have come into contact with those with the virus. After being tracked, they could be forced into testing and even quarantine. These companies have given it a benign name; contact tracing. But it is nothing but a system of intrusive surveillance.

While there remains doubt about how it would work and whether it would be effective, sane minded people and those with some recollection of what happened after 9/11 should not doubt the overarching and Big Brother propensities of this nice sounding system. It reminds of the horrible scenario portrayed in the movie, Minority Report, where criminals are apprehended before they commit the crime. This preemptive approach is now being employed with people who just may have come in contact with those infected with Covid-19.

Because it’s unclear how this system would distinguish between coming in contact with Covid-19 patients and coming in contact with asymptomatic carriers. Asymptomatic carriers are those who show no signs of having the virus. They are perfectly healthy-looking individuals. But then it’s also unclear if that is the only aim behind synthesising this system. Given the history of every system put in place in the wake of the crisis, expect the worst. What’s past is prologue.

The real preemptive approach should have been to initiate a lockdown in late January or early February. Mark Mazzetti, David Sanger, and some other journalists have written an extensive piece for The New York Times about how President Trump simply ignored the looming disaster despite warnings from many scientists and officials, whom Trump brushed off as alarmists.

When 9/11 happened, the American legislature rushed to enact laws that would become more detrimental to Americans than to terrorists. Years later Americans found out through the investigative journalism of James Risen that the Bush administration was actively spying on Americans’ communications. Later, it took Edward Snowden to risk his life and career to leak how intrusive the surveillance dragnet was. The liberties promised in the US Constitution were violated by a man who was a constitutional law professor before becoming the president. President Obama had authorised to even record and store text messages, purchase history, and even Google searches of the American people. Before Risen’s and Snowden’s revelations, Americans were told that only foreign communications were being spied upon to prevent the next 9/11.

When this new system by Apple and Google is put in place, we don’t have to imagine where it would lead to. After this crisis is over, all the sophisticated methods and priceless data gathering this system will master will lead to a world that would make Minority Report appear toothless.

Every time a crisis happens and the government asks for people’s help, that is the time to reach for your wallet. Because this is when opportunist power grabbing leaders work in the shadows to steal people’s hard-earned liberties. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were cheered by al Qaeda but also seen as a godsend by Dick Cheney, US vice president at the time, to spread the tentacles of American power globally while working towards undermining the rights of people at home, who had supported the administration then.

Here is a troubling scenario: if this crisis response ends up being as manipulative as what happened post 9/11, then the bigger loss wouldn’t be that of lives lost but of the way of lives lived.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2020.

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