Across the Aisle: Now, everyone is in prison

Written by P Chidambaram

Published: April 5, 2020 1:33:15 am

COVID-19 is the name given by WHO to an infectious disease caused by the new virus. (AP)

According to WHO, 205 countries are affected by coronavirus or COVID-19. A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms including bacteria. That’s enough about viruses for the purpose of this column.

COVID-19 is the name given by WHO to an infectious disease caused by the new virus. It was first noticed in a patient as caused by a ‘new’ virus by a Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, in December 2019. He was hounded by the Government of China, made to sign a confession, caught the infection, and died on February 7, 2020 at the age of 33. (The authorities apologised after his death.) The new virus that he had noticed has spread rapidly throughout the world in less than 100 days.

COVID-19 cannot be stopped at the borders of a country, it respects no national borders, and it does not discriminate on grounds of religion, caste, race, sex, and place of birth. In a perverse sense, the virus respects Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India.

Powerless Leaders

The most powerful human on earth (so they say) US President Donald Trump helplessly watched as the number of infected persons in his country crossed 213,600 on April 3 (highest in the world). The number of deaths, it was predicted, will be between 100,000 and 240,000. The ‘most powerful military in the world’ is unable to do anything.

Not all the wealth commanded by the richest country of the world seems to be of any use. The dollar has appreciated, but a ‘strong’ dollar is as powerless as a ‘weak’ euro or yuan.

Yet, several heads of government, elected or usurpers, want to rule their countries, not govern with the consent of their citizens. As Bruce Springsteen said in ‘Badlands’, ‘And a king ain’t satisfied ‘Til he rules everything’. How hollow their actions and instruments seem today? Diktats, life-long power, rubber-stamp parliaments, crony courts, pliant agencies, spies, and the most widely misused tool, throwing political opponents in prison for months or years without a charge, are all hollow.

Oppressor & Oppressed

You should remind the oppressors: is it not ironic that the whole world has turned into a prison and the oppressors and the oppressed find themselves in the same prison?

Since you are locked down, here is a game you can play. Download a map of the world on your laptop or phone. Ask any family member to identify the countries one by one. And ask one question: does that country throw people in jail without a charge?

Here is what you will find, and these are only examples. Start with South America.

Venezuela: Thirty Opposition leaders were stripped of their parliamentary immunity by President Nicolas Maduro’s puppet judiciary and are either in exile or jail.

Turn to Africa, and the picture is worse.

Ethiopia: Mr Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018, made peace with Eritrea and won the Nobel Prize. Through 2019, the Internet was switched off. An NGO has documented 64 extra-judicial killings and at least 1,400 cases of arbitrary detentions.

Tanzania: President John Magufuli has arrested Opposition MPs and journalists, shut media outlets and passed laws to muzzle dissidents.

Europe presents a mixed picture. There are robust and celebrated democracies, there are also:

Hungary: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has aligned the executive, legislature and judiciary. His government forced the closure of Central European University and imposed the first internet tax. On March 30, Mr Orban got passed emergency legislation that gives him the right to rule by decree as long as he deems fit.

Russia: President Vladimir Putin pushed through a constitutional amendment that reset his term to zero. In Moscow, when thousands of protesters filled the streets, the authorities responded with batons, over 2,000 were detained, dozens were beaten, and several had criminal cases opened against them. Arrest of political opponents, violence by police officers, detention of children, and threats to parents have become commonplace. There are over 200 political prisoners in the country.

Asia: Degrees of freedom vary from country to country. Some cannot be described as democracies.

Thailand: The new government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha assumed power in 2019. There have been physical assaults on political activists, forced disappearances of human rights defenders, and the criminal code’s provisions are de facto threats to free speech.

Cambodia: The 2018 polls were held in a severely repressive environment that offered voters no meaningful choice. The main opposition party was banned, opposition leaders were in jail or exiled, and independent media and civil society outlets were curtailed. The ruling party won every seat in both houses.

Humanity Will Win

Before you despair, ask yourself, why is every strong leader unable to ‘arrest’ the spread of coronavirus? Will humanity ultimately triumph over the epidemic? The tallest living Tamil poet, Mr Vairamuthu, thinks so, and has penned a beautiful poem on coronavirus (here is a free translation of a part):

Tinier than the atom
Deadlier than the atom bomb
Enters without a sound
Destroys without a war
Man will annihilate
The Corona too
He will conquer the pandemic

When humanity wins this war against coronavirus, I hope humanity will also win its freedom from dictators and tyrants as also from those who aspire to be so.

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