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COVID 19:Two Options

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on April 20, 2020 14:16

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Humanity has struggled through the last two millennia to find a balance between free choice and political compulsion. The Black Death of the 1300’s revitalized thinking around social contracts and individual freedom. Perhaps the present pandemic will do the same.

South African Ministers trade barbed words with journalists and trade groups about whether roast chickens and cigarettes may be sold during the lockdown, while children risk starvation as the economy grinds to a halt. Politicians say we are a constitutional state, for now, while gangs loot liquor outlets. Party ideologues push pet ideologies, reserving bailout funds to black majority-owned businesses. Emergency funds buy patronage.

Lucinda Evans feeds 1300 children from her garage as school feeding schemes close. Photo www.sapeople.com

Roman lawyer Ulpianus taught that the Emperor derives his power from the sovereignty of the individual, who surrenders it to the state in return for services and for the common good. This idea of a social contract between citizen and ruler, however, was submerged in the European medieval Divine Right of Kings.

It was only with the advent of the Black Death in the 1300’s that people began anew to question the right of rulers to compel subservience and labor. Massive deaths, up to 50% of the population in Europe, triggered revolts by peasants and a flowering of thinking that led to the development of modern political thinking about democracy. Interestingly, in the eastern part of Europe leaders succeeded in binding serfs more closely to the land and to duties than before.

Blame was in fashion. Jews were targeted, and villages and ghettos were razed, and Asian people are blamed today. Over the next centuries the idea of scientific medicine, evidence-based research, and political freedom of choice developed.

Jews being burnt. Wikipedia - public domain

The Coronavirus outbreak threatens to undo these gains. Governments are entrusted with draconian powers by citizens to keep them safe, tempting the creation of dictators. Nationalism flourishes similar to previous pandemics, while global actions combat them.

During the Spanish flu, doctors in Galicia were accompanied on house visits by police under a ‘sanitary dictatorship’. The temptation is too great for some leaders. Orban in Hungary has seized practically limitless power. States use technology to monitor populations. Citizens are exhorted to stand together – code for ‘don’t question.’ China is using the opportunity to crush democratic dissent in Hong Kong.

Technology also gives power to individuals to monitor their government’s performance as well, as the Gutenberg printing press did in the time of the Black Death. Citizens have choices: to act in their own interests, or to submit to others doing it for them. South Korea demonstrated this, with citizens willingly submitting to harsh intrusions and voting the ruling party back into power in a landslide. Next door, China is facing protests and shutting down chat groups of people questioning their government's actions.

The printing press created a Western awareness which nurtured the Reformation, a flowering of science, and modern politics as we know it. Today global networks enable scientists to develop treatment protocols, share genome data, and compare figures. Nationalists claim exceptionalism and close borders. Are government decisions taken for or with citizens? As we rebuild our world, will it be one of compulsion or choice?

 

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on April 20, 2020 14:16

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