Citizens started to wear protective face masks at almost the same time when the state’s authoritarian identity is laid bare with little or no effort to hide its beastly features. It is as if those in power have found it necessary and desirable to inform the public that rights will be restricted, surveillance will be intensified, and the state will intrude into the personal lives of citizens in dealing with the pandemic.
Suddenly, the representative of the state is no longer the amiable type of public servant but an authoritative figure who impose harsh lockdowns and control the movement of people. The duty of citizens in a supposedly democratic society was downgraded as mere followers of what authorities are telling them what to do. Obey or resist at your own risk.
It seems new roles were assigned with many citizens choosing to be submissive, and politicians pretending to be experts in making decisions sans public consultation. Fear of the invisible enemy numbed many to silence. Fear was heightened to the level which could discourage people to feel and express outrage. Fear was used for insidious political ends.
But this was done without triggering a backlash even if the truth about the brutality of the state is already exposed. Worse, the aggressive actions of the state are justified as a desperate response during an emergency situation. Apparently, conservatives in power can now realize their fascist fantasies and win public approval at the same time.
They highlight the narrative that the threat is no longer the strong arm of the state but a deadly new virus. Hence, the need for coercive measures to stop the spread of infections.
Under normal times, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Today, everyone is a suspected virus carrier until it is determined that his or her body temperature is normal. Individuals confess their symptoms and recent acquaintances. And if they conceal information, contact tracing apps and teams could extract the truth.
The state dictates what kind of activities are permissible. The movement of people is highly restricted. ‘Stay at home’ and ‘wear a mask’ to save lives.
Those who are sick are placed under quarantine. But authorities are also on the lookout for ‘sick’ citizens who pose a threat to public safety.
‘Fake news’ peddlers are charged, pasaways are publicly shamed and penalized, and health protocol violators are arrested. The state makes arbitrary definitions of what type of behavior is lawful. Critics, journalists, and other dissenting voices are often targeted by intolerant authorities under the guise of protecting public health.
‘Stay at home’ becomes prolonged detention and ‘wear a mask’ is interpreted to put a gag on contrary views.
The crisis is far from over after months of herding people inside their homes, bombarding the public with the scientific lectures of politicians during press conferences, and mobilizing the bureaucracy based on the ruling party’s idea of addressing the pandemic.
The government is aware that the disruption is causing widespread despair that could potentially undermine confidence in authorities. Politicians are too arrogant to admit that their incompetence could have exacerbated the suffering of many.
They are haunted by their own weaknesses that drive them to be more extreme in exerting control. Draconian laws to pacify unrest, demonize critics as enemies of public health, and terrorize communities with overkill troop deployment. Medicalize a military operation, militarize a medical situation.
The raging pandemic and the self-serving maneuver of the conservative party in power have made it a challenging year for progressives.
How to expose the partisan agenda of politicians without sounding like a conspiracy theorist? How to explain the science of the pandemic, make people understand that the health risk should not be underestimated, but at the same time have them recognize too that the politics of the day should not be surrendered to politicians? How to counter the shock and awe tactics of the state with support from community frontliners? How to organize netizens, work from home professionals, and residents in hard lockdowns?
These are key issues that can only be resolved through active resistance.
Until early March, our alternative concept of politics is harnessed by the coming together of strangers to form a stronger bond against an oppressive system. People linking arms, showing solidarity, and marching as one to demand political reforms.
How can this still be feasible if mass gatherings are already prohibited? How can we build more unions if social distancing is the dominant political command?
Despite all these limitations and practical questions, the progressive movement didn’t back down. Online protests were organized, street actions were coordinated, and political alliances were formed defeating the intent of authorities to quell all forms of dissent.
There were inspiring actions from Black Likes Matter across the United States to the democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Activists are becoming more creative in coding their protests for livestreaming.
The combination of online and offline activities proved effective, but what will be counted: the number of virtual hits or the warm bodies in the streets? Well, not really ‘warm’ because activists are enforcing health protocols too.
It is revealing that authorities are advising the public to join online protests instead of street rallies. We hope it is motivated by a genuine desire to prevent the surge of COVID-19 cases. But it also reflects how authorities measure the impact of online political actions. Lesson: It is not enough to boost social media influence and make it in the trending topics of the day; our actions must be powerful enough that it becomes a traumatic experience for despotic authorities. They must feel it in realtime and force them to reconsider their remaining time in office.
We are at the early stage of mixing methods of dissent while surviving the pandemic.
How much online time should we devote each day for campaign planning, when is the right offline intervention, how should we coordinate these actions that will deliver a huge political blow? What kind of activist cadres will emerge if their political conscientization is facilitated mainly by virtual means?
We are documenting our daily struggles, webinar and all, knowing too well that our theories might have all the right answers on the most fundamental questions of the day, but we learn more and thrive better by being in the thick of the political battle.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org