Hint: It has nothing to do with far-right ‘covidiots’ and anti-vaxxers.
Lockdown protests are derided in many parts of the world because of the threat they pose to public health. The deliberate disregard for social distancing rules provokes not just the spite of authorities but also the paranoia of quarantined residents. The organizers themselves expose the questionable political and scientific basis of their actions through their wild conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine conviction, and creepy revival of neo-nazi symbolisms.
This type of protest which has already mobilized several groups in the United States, United Kingdom, and some parts of Europe should not be lumped with the growing discontent in many developing countries. But even in the countries where far-right forces are aggressive and more visible in defying the lockdown policies, there exists a disgruntled segment of the population whose politics are far removed from what the anti-vaxxers are advocating. They deserve to be heard and it is irresponsible to dismiss their dissent as a manifestation of conservative groupthink.
We do not lose the freedom of expression and assembly even during a pandemic. If states enact policies restricting the movement of people aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, it should be temporary, proportionate, and transparent. The restrictions should not undermine the bill of rights. And citizen vigilance is imperative in monitoring the actions of authorities and the government response in battling the pandemic.
The people are justified in resisting unreasonable impositions. Dissent even becomes a citizen duty when the criminal negligence of leaders threatens to harm public safety. Politicians are aware of the public outrage that is why they betray their desperation by applying draconian measures to silence all kinds of criticisms.
What informs the lockdown-related resistance in countries like the Philippines is the people’s frustration and anger over the militarist and brutal approach in enforcing quarantine measures, the delay and inefficiency in extending aid to affected residents, the lack of a comprehensive medical response to contain the virus, the indifference to the plight of the poor, the callous double standard in penalizing so-called violators, and the arrogant refusal to acknowledge the shortcomings and excesses of the government in dealing with the pandemic.
Despite the peaceful conduct of online and offline protests, organized in compliance with social distancing protocols, dissent is viewed with suspicion. Any gathering promoted by activists is accused of harboring an anti-government agenda. Even relief work is criminalized. Surveillance is intensified not for contact tracing but to prosecute critics. Authorities interpret herd immunity as a goal to force people to think and behave like a herd, or else. A counter-narrative is instantly demonized.
During an emergency situation, access to verified information is vital for survival. Authoritarian governments are notorious for restricting information networks. Another tactic is to bombard the public with government pronouncements and directives until contrary views are either sidelined or relegated as unofficial and hence, unfit for wide sharing.
When authorities order people to stay home and strictly obey instructions under the guise of defeating an invisible enemy, majority will probably accept it as necessary. But the consequence of repeating this command on a daily basis is the normalization of state presence and even intrusion into our lives. This is evident in the surveillance apps made mandatory in countries like India, or the overkill deployment of security checkpoints in barangays.
To think and behave differently is to court community backlash. Who needs cyber troops when fellow citizens are policing for the state in the name of upholding the common good? And when conformity is violated, the law is invoked to identify and punish the pasaway (disobedient).
The idea of a social protest during a pandemic is rejected as a nuisance and danger to public security. State reprisal is operationalized as a valid measure to defend public interest. The people’s helplessness is exploited by the government to disarm one of the democratic means to assert power even if the cause of the suffering of many could have been prevented or minimized by effective leadership.
Two months of forced quarantine have isolated us from each other. It has weakened social bonds and other meaningful ties that define our roles in the community. Our daily source of sustenance is delivered by government propaganda which we can’t debate, dissect, and destroy with others without risking state persecution. During the pre-pandemic days, our sense of public duty emanates from the knowledge that our political activities are shaping not just the present but also crucial in the building of a new future. This powerful and liberating idea is slowly being taken away from us by the state which promises to deliver us from the scourge of a deadly virus.
Our hope lies in how we will face the pandemic not as mask-wearing individuals but as a group promoting medical measures, social reforms, and democratic rights. The pandemic demands medical attention, the crisis requires collective political action. It is an invitation to continue talking about the old and new normal, or how the virus of the oppressive social order is unmasked and defeated by the ‘specter’ of the coming liberation.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org