World War Contagion
January 12, 2021
On October 5th, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech while dedicating a bridge amidst rising geopolitical tensions. In a bid to avoid another global war, Roosevelt used this speech (later coined the “Quarantine Speech”) to flip around the popular isolationist ideology held by many Americans at the time and instead urge for the “quarantine” or isolation of aggressor nations. If war were to occur, Roosevelt said, it would threaten the foundation of civilization and lead to a world where there is "no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science”. Fast forward almost 100 years and we are facing another war—not with an enemy that is dividing the world, but a pandemic that is uniting us. Many countries have enacted actions similar to the US Defense Procurement Act to force manufacturers to produce medical equipment. At the same time, economies have virtually been shut down, social distancing has been demanded or encouraged, and curfews are enforced. We are finding no safety in arms, no answer in science, and are risking losing more lives than WWI. What will it mean for our future when the biggest war in recent years wasn’t fought with an enemy nation but with a pandemic?
Black Chamber, Project SHAMROCK, and the Patriot Act were all national surveillance programs that were created from war or an act of terrorism. Black Chamber was born out of WWI and was the first peacetime cryptanalytic program and the precursor to the National Security Agency (NSA). Project SHAMROCK was born out of WWII and monitored all telegraphic data and was part of the Armed Forces Security Agency which later rolled into the NSA. The Patriot Act was born out of 9/11 and outlines the federal government’s surveillance liberties in the name of terrorism. These programs remained in place beyond the timeline of the perceived threat, not because the event occurred but because there was a reminder that we had something to fear. In a bid to make sure we weren’t equipping our human enemies for success, communications were monitored, and now to make sure we aren’t equipping our pathogenic enemy for success, our location is being monitored.
Work from Privacy International has found that telecommunication location tracking is being utilized in 24 countries, location tracking for contract tracing or quarantine enforcement is being utilized in 14 countries, and the US government is working with the private sector to analyze aggregate data of people’s movements. Will this interest in location data last? It has before. Brown University found that the “US used post-9/11 terrorist fears to expand its monitoring of US citizens who have nothing to do with terrorism.” Edward Snowden warns that this event will be an excuse for more surveillance tracking.
The difference between previous surveillance programs and today, is that citizens are painfully aware of the government’s intent and their own rights. This concern has been highlighted by Amnesty International’s release of recommended conditions to safeguard human rights and prevent surveillance overreach. We are opening ourselves up to a future where our location data can be accessible at any time in the name of safety; however, an uprising against this movement could also occur.
There may be protests, watchdogs, location-data mining scandals, but the biggest challenge will come from the backlash against surveillance capitalism – as corporations seek to address emerging consumer privacy demands. Over the coming years, many companies may prioritize data privacy, put ethics at the forefront of development, utilize decentralized technologies, and leverage innovative governance models such as data trusts to ensure minimal surveillance and prevent data abuse. Nonetheless, the next significant fear-causing event will be a test as to whether this is a marketing facade, or a true cultural shift.
In times of war, not only do we survey, but we also protect. This war against disease is ravaging the lives of people and the life of economies. Research from the Centre for Economic Policy Research has shown that governments tend to turn to protectionism when facing severe economic downturns. President Trump has restricted the export of medical supplies, shifted domestic manufacturing to help the cause, and has reportedly considered militarizing the longest demilitarized border in the world. Although we all have one common enemy, it can come in the form of innocent foreigners.
Responses to this pandemic threaten to plunge us into a world of isolationism, where countries will truly know who stands by their side in times of crisis. The future will likely see more domestic manufacturing of essential products such as medical supplies. Proximity, guarantee of service, and access to goods will be a priority for cornerstone products over the traditional prioritization of low-cost, low-inventory, just-in-time delivery. After the demonstrated lack of support between allied countries, affluent citizens may well look to prioritize purchasing products from domestic companies in a display of loyalty. North American relations could weaken, with Canada and Mexico diversifying suppliers to involve more Trans-Atlantic trade.
The world will also be looking to honor the heroes of this war—those that have risked their lives for the greater good. Unlike wars in the past, those who have risked their lives are not soldiers but are medical personnel and essential workers. Medical professionals are receiving nightly applause, grocery store staff are getting drive-by salutes by first responders, and this respect will go long-past the battle. There may be a holiday in their honor, they may receive tax benefits, and they may be recognized at sporting events.
However, the accolades come with challenges. Just as with veterans, PTSD may be a struggle for those that worked in the hospitals during the pandemic, watching not only their friends and family die but also their coworkers. Essential workers (a group which is disproportionately composed of lower-income individuals) may feel resentment as their “decision” to work didn’t come from a place of altruism but from a place of financial necessity. Social tension may rise as post-pandemic data shows inordinate death rates in certain racial groups and lower-income communities. However, one of the greatest outcomes is that we as a society may finally give those that protect our community the same respect as those that defend it.
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization, said that this pandemic “is the greatest test for international cooperation in more than 75 years”. It is very rare that the entire world has one common enemy— an enemy that attacks from within our borders not outside of them. The post-pandemic future will be a test of how fear interplays with surveillance, a test of isolationist and protectionist mentalities, and a test of how we demonstrate gratitude to those on the frontlines. Maybe Roosevelt didn’t mean it quite so literally when he said “war is a contagion”, but his words have never echoed truer than they do today.
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