Liberation theologian says pandemic new '1984'

Liberation theologian says pandemic new ‘1984’: “Our fragile democratic institutions are under threat”

(Source: Frei Betto OP*, website; translation: Novena)

What will “the day after” this pandemic be like? What will change in our countries and in our lives? It is still early to make predictions. But some signs already indicate that, contrary to what the song says, we will not live like our parents.

How did China manage to stop the epidemic in a relatively short space of time, considering that, in a population of over a billion inhabitants, it is not easy to exercise such effective control?

And it’s just that word – control – that’s the sign that George Orwell’s fiction in his novel 1984 has now become reality.

Our fragile democratic institutions are under threat. China managed to contain the coronavirus because it kept all its citizens under surveillance through their mobile phones.

It was even able to track the movements of the carrier of the infection for the past two weeks on his or her mobile phone.

The world is now tending to transform into a gigantic Big Brother house, where everyone knows what everyone is doing, especially those who control the algorithms.

The requirement to stay at home demonstrates that it is possible to keep society running without forcing thousands of people to commute daily from their home to their workplace.

This would bring capitalism many advantages: it wouldn’t need to maintain as many buildings to house offices and other workspaces, nor employees in charge of cleaning, meals, maintenance, power, furniture, etc.

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Many [after the coronavirus – ed.] will be like [Brazilian] domestic workers before the 2015 law that guarantees them rights: without a formal contract, labour laws, union ties… and to muted grumbles.

Everyone will sleep at work, without fixed clock-in and clock-out times, forced to buy their food [at work – ed,], without the right to weekend breaks and forced to make the domestic space a workplace, something which will surely affect family relationships.

We will all be service providers, uberised by the fragmentation of labour relations.

Another possibility of the weakening of democracy is that the authorities, on a mere authoritarian whim, might decide to frequently impose a curfew on us.

“Stay home” would become routine, and our mobility would be controlled by the police. And the borders of our countries might be periodically closed, which would make us experience what it means to live in North Korea.

However, there are “suitcases that come by train”, as we say in Minas [Brazil: há malas que vêm de trem – “every cloud has a silver lining” – ed.].

The pandemic deflated the neoliberal discourse on the efficiency of the free market. As in previous crises, the State’s intervention role was used.

Countries that have privatised the health system, such as the United States, face more difficulties in containing the virus than those that have a public system of care for the sick.

Perhaps that will urge caution in the face of privatisation proposals, and even encourage renationalisations.

A positive factor in the midst of the crisis is the the strengthening of ties of solidarity, the sharing of goods, the care for the vulnerable, that old games are rescued to entertain children and, above all, that we’re discovering that we can be happy enjoying the family environment without many activities outside the home.

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The word crisis is equivalent to decision-making. Because the crisis teaches us many lessons.

If in a few days it was possible to transform stadiums, such as the Pacaembu in Sao Paulo, and pavillions, such as the Riocentro in Rio, into hospitals with first-rate facilities, why is it not possible to adopt similar measures to reduce the housing deficit in Brazil?

There are those, however, who learn nothing from the crisis, such as those who, contrary to ethics and the most universal religious principles, consider that it is more important to save the profits of banks and companies than it is to save lives.

They suffer from a short-sightedness that prevents them from seeing that the coronavirus does not make class distinctions.

They are therefore wrong to assume that the epidemic will only kill the elderly (which would alleviate social security costs), carriers of other diseases (which would clear the backlog of the emergency health services), homeless people (which would sanitise cities) and inhabitants of the favelas (which would reduce the expenses of social assistance).

This perverse ideology is indeed a serious case of health public policy that requires urgent measures of prophylaxis.

*Frei Betto is a Brazilian writer, political activist, philosopher, liberation theologian and Dominican friar.

More on Novena from Frei Betto:

Good Friday meditation: “We have a wrong idea of ​​the presence of God among us”

More on the political implications of the pandemic:

On pandemic lockdowns, East European Catholics victims of communism warn: “We’ve experienced this before”

Italian Church reform group alerts cuts to civil rights during pandemic “run the risk of continuing beyond the emergency”

European Catholic NGOs denounce Hungary PM Orbán’s pandemic power grab

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.
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