Democracy in Pandemic times. The world is debating, discussing and delineating on this issue. The prognosis is not so welcome. Yuval Noah Harari- author of Homo sapiens and Homo deus– a history professor in Hebrew University, Israel, invented the now viral description ‘Digital Dictatorship’. One recalls Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, quoting it, as the lead counsel in the challenge to Aadhaar, in the reference before The Nine, before the top court. Yuval has now gone beyond, in this Covid-19 backdrop that facial recognition and the digital footprints embraced by China in Wuhan, Hubei Province, to lockdown and ‘flatten the curve’ literally “smashed even the remnants of freedom and democracy left in that nation. We are now hacking ourselves”.
Niall Ferguson, the Stanford University history professor has joined in, to suggest that the incumbent President Xi Jinping was today the most powerful leader ‘China has ever had in its civilisational march’ is back to Marx-Engels philosophy. Ferguson is convinced that China may be a ‘market economy but it was run by a totalitarian State’ and this would be the one issue that may flare up, as he quotes Henry Kissinger that “World was now in the foothills of a fresh Cold War”- while recalling the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Surfing the net, reveal conspiracy theories such as that Covid-19 as a “direct consequence of upgrading to 5G” (David Icke- the maverick author and journalist).
In the midst of all these dark clouds on the horizon, there was a huge streak of white light shining so brightly in the White House on 22nd April, 2020. Suddenly, from nowhere. The occasion was President Donald J Trump’s daily 2 hour briefing as master of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. One runs of adjectives on watching the ‘the public clash between the President and his medical team advising him in tackling crisis’. It was an absolutely brilliant exhibition of democracy trumping Donald, in the oldest democracy. Trump is furious. He is angry, frustrated that the virus is not a hoax he postulated it was or a conspiracy from the Do Nothing Democrats.
POTUS has been threatening to open the economy ahead of time. He is concerned that the economy was tanking, and the list of 22 million Americans applying for unemployment dole, is growing. Trump is rattled that his re election chances in November 2020 hustings, may be going up in flames in front of his own eyes, and he can do nothing to quell it. What does he then do? The poll numbers show Joe Biden is trumping Donald by 9 solid points as on date.
Trump is now taking on the medical establishment and not the political. America is deeply divided along political lines. But, solidly behind their scientists and experts as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah L Birx, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, three of the leading physicians, on the Task Force. These experts stand alongside Trump in the daily briefings. Despite their presence and their sobering, factual and logical influences, Trump goes on his solitary trips that ‘virus was going, going and economy will open and boom in a matter a couple of weeks’. That is where the Dance of Democracy came out dancing magically. You simply cannot see such scenes in Russia or China. It can happen only in the oldest democracy- US of A. What a fascinating live action, going back to Pericles, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato- as Michael Sandel, the Harvard Professor wonders.
For those of us who saw the White House Task Force briefing, live, were privileged to see what Democracy is all about for the people, by the people and of the people. Close to 50000 lives have gone to meet the maker in US and numbers still counting. While the scientists, health experts and medical professionals are clamouring for continued ‘lockdown’- Trump and his acolytes are urging “Liberate Michigan” et al. Things came to a colossal head on 22nd April, 2020, during the Press briefing.
When a reporter alluded to Robert Redfield’s interview with Washington Post that ‘Covid-19 was not going anywhere yet. It would be back in the winter of 2020, when the annual flu season would be on and the impact may be worse than now’, Trump said the good doctor was ‘misquoted’. And to make matters worse for himself, in a stunning display of democratic ethos in America, when Trump called Robert Reidfield to contradict himself on live television, he chose to ‘affirm the authenticity of his quote in the newspaper’. Trump was hit badly and it showed in his body language and ‘his temper tantrums flowed through his visible veins’ as a website described it.
Trump rushed to the female Dr. Deborah to salvage the contradiction, but she too stood by her fellow professional in saying “We cannot say today whether it won’t be back in the winter”, while being deferential to POTUS. Oh My God, the rug was getting pulled under the feet of the most powerful man- leader of the free world- in his own terrain, his home, the White House.
Trump had no choice. Dr. Anthony Fauci has not been the POTUS’ best friend now. Dr. Fauci, all of 80 years, with a 35 years record, across 7 Presidents, had been on ‘every other network telling the facts and truth that the virus will dictate the timeline for opening the economy, and not the Taskforce’ as the editor of New Yorker David Remnick put it. Trump turned to Dr. Fauci, as the lastest resort, with no other option on the table, even as other members of the Task Force, Vice President Mike Pence, included were seen wincing. And Dr. Fauci was rock solid. He was himself. The authentic medical professional he has always been.
Trump coaxing, cajoling notwithstanding , Dr. Anthony Fauci stood his ground, “I am afraid the virus will be there or be back in the winter. That is the nature of the beast it is, as I have studied their genre all my life”. Trump did not know where to hide. He was fretting and fuming. That the most powerful man in the world was being trumped on his home turf, in front of the world and captured on live television, made great viewing.
Forget it. Democracy is safe and sound. Digital Dictatorship may be true. Contact Tracing is imbued with the help of Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram et al to Big Brother. But it is all ‘anonymously’ they say. The national or international briefing on 22nd April, 2020, of the Coronavirus White House Task Force with President Donald J Trump, in attendance, has reinforced the belief that Democracy is here to stay. It is not going anywhere. Covid-19 or not. This was what the founders of America strived and died for. This was what Benjamin Franklin, as the author of the text of US Constitution said, “We will be a Republic, if we can keep it”. The words in the Constitution of a democratic nation, are not mere alphabets put together. It is life, living, health, energy and spirit of We The People, who wrote it for themselves. Thank You America. No matter Donald J Trump is at the helm, democracy is alive and well, for he himself was an elected official, and slated to fight for re-election in Nov, 2020. Democracy is dead. Long live democracy.
(Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan- Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)