Last week, the mayor of Ecuador's largest city ordered the international airport's runway to be blocked to prevent a KLM airliner from landing to accommodate Dutch tourists stranded by the corona virus.
Cynthia Viteri, who is currently under investigation, defended the decision to put police cars on the tarmac to prevent the plane from performing its mercy mission to protect her city of Guayaquil from the pandemic.
In desperate times like this, managers at all levels are making extraordinary efforts to contain the virus. And while some one-off steps like the episode are in Ecuador, others can be much more invasive – and may take a long time after the virus threat has finally subsided.
Like the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis of such magnitude that it threatens to change the world we live in, with ramifications for governance. Governments block cities with the help of the army, map population flows via smartphones, and block or seize quarantine-breakers using CCTV and facial recognition cameras supported by artificial intelligence.
The restrictions are unprecedented in peacetime and are only made possible by rapid technological advances. And while citizens around the world may be willing to temporarily sacrifice civil liberties, history shows that it can be difficult to give up emergency powers.
"A major concern is that governments will retain these powers after the end of the public health crisis when the public grants governments new surveillance powers to contain Covid-19," said Adam Schwartz, chief lawyer at the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "Almost two decades after the September 11 attacks, the US government still uses many of the surveillance technologies it developed immediately afterwards."
The Chinese Communist Party's containment measures at the virus epicenter in Wuhan partially set the tone. The initially shocking steps to isolate the infected were then introduced in countries with no comparable history of Chinese government controls. The Wuhan barrage extended to Hubei Province and other parts of the country.
The Chinese authorities followed with more intrusive measures, which had decades of experience, to monitor citizens for dissent and to win state-owned companies for the cause. The authorities obtained data from telecommunications companies, asked private technology companies to set up virtual health hotlines to track down people exposed to Hubei, and later relied on an extensive network of Communist Party and community groups to encourage citizens Knocking on the door monitors the health and movements of your neighbors.
China uses the surveillance state's tactics to fight the spread of viruses
The symbolism was clear on Tuesday when China lifted Wuhan's longstanding travel restrictions, despite the introduction or tightening of locks in the UK, Italy and the US.
Price of freedom
"China was able to control the outbreak because the government was closely following people," said Joy Huang, a Shanghai employee. "I don't want to be persecuted, but in the meantime I don't want infected people to not be persecuted. Freedom has a price."
The rest of the world is finding out now.
The government has already passed a law in Hungary which is intended to give the self-proclaimed "illiberal" Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule indefinitely by decree. The opposition tried to slow down the bill, but Orban's coalition has the super majority it needs to pass the bill anyway. It contains provisions that people who are classified as "factual falsifications" should be sentenced to up to five years in prison to weaken the "defense measures" of the government.
The Russian police have now used Moscow's extensive camera network to catch more than 200 people for violating the quarantine required after their return from high-risk countries. They have used one of the world's most comprehensive facial recognition systems to monitor more than 13,000 people with mandatory self-isolation.
Cambodia to Israel
In Cambodia, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who flew to China shortly after the outbreak to show solidarity with Beijing, was accused by Human Rights Watch of concerns about "bogus news" related to the virus used to arrest opposition critics to have.
It is not only those governments with authoritarian tendencies that intervene to restrict their citizens. French President Emmanuel Macron has set up a committee to develop anti-virus measures that include a possible "mobile identification strategy" for anyone who has come into contact with infected people. That's after Paris police used drones last week to make sure the city's residents abide by the detention rules.
Singapore, which has been praised for mainly containing the virus, has recently launched a cell phone app that uses Bluetooth technology to map close contacts if a sick person doesn't remember all of the social interactions. The app remains voluntary.
There is no opt-out in Israel where the police are authorized to monitor those who are alleged to be isolated, and the internal security service Shin Bet is now authorized to track an infected person's cell phone data two weeks ago.
Although democratic Taiwan and South Korea have had some success in containing the virus, some experts suggest that Asia's experience of pandemics and different levels of citizens' experience of politics have made for somewhat more intrusive controls.
In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed an unprecedented three-week ban across the country starting at midnight on Tuesday, officials are tracking cell phones, extracting airline and railroad reservation data, and stamping a process to trace people's hands to suspected infections using indelible ink. The Modi government also used the virus as a reason to eradicate an anti-government protest lodged in New Delhi. Although India has fewer than 700 confirmed cases – less than half the Irish number – its closure is the hardest in the world, and the police and vigilantes were filmed on Wednesday when they beat people outside.
India imprisons 1.3 billion people in the greatest isolation effort
"Given the number of cases, a 21-day nationwide ban, which is so short-term and likely to be implemented without considering all the consequences, seems incomprehensible," said Salman Anees Soz, a member of the Indian Congress Party of the Opposition and a former World Bank economic development expert, who was involved compared to the Prime Minister's controversial cash ban in 2016. "Either the government knows that the disease has spread far beyond the official numbers, or the government wants to be seen as something crucial. Either way, it reminds me of demonization. In fact, this will be far greater and an extreme risk for represent the poor and vulnerable of India. "
Cultural differences mean that such strict controls face resistance in the West. In Canada, the health minister warned citizens that failure to isolate yourself – like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose wife tested positive for Covid-19 – could take harsher action and "jeopardize our civil liberties". The United Kingdom has seen overcrowded parks and packed London Underground subways. The Australians are still flocking to the beach, while the US students have defied the guidelines and have gathered in large numbers for the Spring Break.
President Donald Trump has fueled the feeling that a clampdown is questionable and has suggested setting a time limit for restrictions to avoid unnecessary harm to the economy, apparently without resorting to medical advice.
Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cyber security advisor to the American Civil Liberties Union, said the U.S. does not have the infrastructure to support enforcement of the Chinese-style home stay policy because the information available is disaggregated and largely in the The hands of private companies, not the government. "As with any law in our society, we have to accept a little bit of non-compliance," said Granick.
Some see the need for better control.
The Australian government has been criticized by some health experts for failing to take sufficient surveillance and follow-up measures to stop the virus from spreading. In Japan, where the outbreak appears to be less serious than in many other countries, parliament passed a law that would allow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare an emergency, but he has not yet.
Europe has its own sensitivity, with greater emphasis on data protection. In Germany, a draft coronavirus law with provisions that allow infected patients to be tracked indefinitely via smartphone was changed after the Minister of Justice expressed her opposition. Israeli state security measures have been rejected at the country's Supreme Court.
For Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University, China's political culture "made its population more accessible to draconian measures." Governments around the world should, however, "be able to concentrate and expand their powers to deal with the crisis more efficiently" – as long as it is "strictly limited," said Gu.
In Ecuador, Mayor Viteri's controversial measures to stop a Dutch airliner from landing could not contain the virus. Hours later, she announced that she had tested positive for Covid-19.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)