Author: Vladimir Kolev
The scale of the new COVID-19 virus is growing and worrying, the world is sinking into growing fear, uncertainty, and confusion, and the “infodemia” surrounding the epidemic is becoming increasingly worrying. But can we blame people for their actions or inactions? The authorities, even the “most democratic” ones, have failed to respond adequately to this challenge because they have managed to undermine citizens’ trust in them, in public institutions, in the media, and even in science. On the other hand, world powers have not shown a willingness to interact and coordinate globally to combat the growing threat. That is why now they have to use increasingly authoritarian measures to compensate for the lack of international cooperation, effective communication, and public awareness and preparedness. But the more forceful and unsubstantiated the authorities act, the greater the concern and mistrust. People are becoming more prone to extremes, be it neglect of danger, even the adoption of conspiracy theories and thus endangering their own lives and those of others, or in excessive anxiety, and hence panic, recklessness, and perhaps and violence.
Due to a complete lack of trust in governments, leaders are willing to sacrifice the well-being and fundamental rights of citizens to regain control of the masses in the short term and strengthen their power – both in the “Western world” and in more autocratic regimes. But when the restrictions are not legally complied with, well-founded, and communicated to citizens, they would have the opposite effect. In times of increased sole power, liberal values are in question. The demands of society in democratic governments are expected to be much higher and not be satisfied only with control, fines, and penalties. Full transparency, accountability, public trust, and cooperation should also be required – things that are supposed to allow free societies to respond better to such pandemics.
The state of emergency and the lack of clear resistance and control by civil society are a clear precondition for the emergence and activation of more and more individual leaders, especially far-right populists, who are tempted and intoxicated by superpowers. This is already being seen in many countries, where disproportionate measures are being introduced to suppress human rights. Well-known political figures did not miss the opportunity to oppose immigration and globalization and refugees as a source of the virus in the first weeks of growing danger, where thousands of migrants remained stranded on the Greek-Turkish border, with a huge opportunity to spread the virus. However, Erdogan, the EU, as well as Borissov, continued to maintain their firm positions, pursuing political interests at the expense of humanity and other forgotten European values.
Bulgaria is also introducing the strictest measures at a rapid pace – restrictions on travel between settlements, bans on walks, visits to parks and gardens, a ban on shopping for people under 60 at certain time intervals, evening hours starting in broad daylight, control over internet content, even a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights is required, and the list is growing daily. Even before some of the new measures came into force, governments in several cities began to set up checkpoints in Roma neighborhoods, although there was no information about patients in them. Taking advantage of the chaos, patriots in the ruling coalition are trying to push through measures that undermine the foundations of democracy, such as those for volunteer groups. The security of some of the most vulnerable people, those without a home, is not guaranteed – crisis centers stop accepting new people, charity kitchens have closed their doors, and the risk of fatal infection in some of them is huge. The viral epidemic has shown our dependence on each other, regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, sociality, or any other affiliation – leading to the common awareness that we live in an interconnected “society”.
The virus has also shown that there are no national borders for it. It is important that world governments coordinate as quickly as possible, otherwise the huge epidemic crisis will lead to both economic and financial ones. The current system leads us to believe that it is not prepared to deal with such global dangers, as it does not respond satisfactorily to the climate crisis. By the way, some of these links the two crises, as melting glaciers and rising temperatures make the planet more hospitable to viruses and bacteria, and the threat of catching the virus is much higher in polluted cities. Unfortunately, some EU members have taken defensive positions, failing to respond to Italy’s requests for medical equipment and supplies. Thus, the insulation acquires other dimensions besides the purely physical one. Fortunately, we also witnessed encouraging examples of international solidarity – Chinese and Cuban medical professionals, equipment and masks arrived in Italy to help fight the virus, and a British cruise ship with confirmed cases of coronavirus infection was accepted to dock in Cuba days ago.
Another cause for concern is that due to the weakening public institutions, social system, and our dependence on the private sector and its services, we are facing a situation of inability of the authorities to deal with the influx of infected people in public hospitals. We have to rely on private hospitals to prioritize the public good over the interests of business, but can we expect them to provide healthcare that is accessible to all, without discrimination, with good quality and following principles of ethical allocation of health resources? Alexandrovska University Hospital has decided to return a large donation for the purchase of respiratory equipment to its owner, because the donation is conditional, and this would violate the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors. Doubts also arise as to whether wealthier citizens follow the established order announced by the health authorities after a big businessman was hospitalized with his wife in a medical facility, which is not provided for cases of COVID-19. The administration of the American president tried to buy a vaccine development from Germany for the virus and to make it exclusively for Americans. It seems that we will increasingly think about how reliable the current capitalist system is and what the abandonment of public sectors such as health care leads to, as well as what can be learned and borrowed from other models that prove more effective in certain circumstances.
The current situation is a real test of citizenship, people everywhere are divided because of our flooding (dis) information, no one wants to be left without an opinion and indifferent to the general discourse, which leads to extreme and radical positions and a tendency to justify authoritarian tactics. Undoubtedly, the populists will try to take advantage of this, but it is up to civil society and our common sense not to allow extreme restrictions. When you are forced to choose between your health and life, and those of your loved ones, on the one hand, and your fundamental rights, on the other, it is logical to choose life and protect anyone who claims to do everything to protect it. But this is an immoral and wrong question and choice, because they are inextricably linked. As one thought that replaces freedom of security puts it, it eventually loses both.
An informed, solidary and just society is far more powerful and effective than a repressed, controlled, and ignorant population. The examples of the awakening solidarity and mutual assistance both in the world and in our country are more and more encouraging. We will tackle this challenge only together (though not purely physically) and without allowing our rights and dignity to be suppressed, and this will be an undoubted lesson for future trials before the world and true democracy.