“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”
The virus is a set of genetic instructions – whether DNA or RNA – that are sometimes wrapped in a protein capsid and in others – in addition to the protein capsid – an additional fat membrane. Viruses are not alive, so they need to get into a cell in order to make use of their reproductive structures and multiply. The virus is basically information or data that is harmless if it’s not absorbed by a living being. Fake news are therefore: a virus.
Magicians and pickpockets base their art on distraction. They take advantage of the mind’s ability to concentrate on that most intense sensation, so it disconnects from the other senses or focus of attention. For example, magicians make a distracting movement with one hand, while the other does the trick. Likewise, pickpockets use different techniques to distract the victim; they may accidentally stumble and hit the victim’s shoulder, while his hand pulls out the wallet. The victim feels the strong push but not the subtle touch of the hand.
While we are experiencing a pandemic that -in addition to its tragic facet- has awaken the best of human nature -such as solidarity, empathy, self-denial and creativity- a new war for hegemonic control is taking place in the midst of it, and within these two wars, there is a deep and lasting transformation of our way of life and the structures that govern us.
Leaving conspiracy theories aside -or not- concerning the origin of the virus and what was done or not regarding its spread, there is a discursive war right now on what is the best model to combat and control this pandemic, and on what the best model would be to live in the new normal. If we notice the speeches of many heads of government in the world, references to the state of war and war economy are frequently used when they want to explain the decisions and measures to be taken amid these circumstances and for the near future. It is therefore clear that we are at war: a war against COVID19, but also an hegemonic war.
“When war comes, the first casualty is the truth.”
The problem of the war of narratives for hegemony is greatly aggravated in the Information Age, since the reproductive capacity of the virus of half-truths and complete lies acquires a pandemic character. For many centuries, progress was made in setting rules for this horrible human tendency to make war; One of the great conquests in the process of humanizing war – in its noblest meaning – was the proscription to make it against civilian objectives, hence the victor’s obligation to protect and care for these populations was added and -more recently- progress was made in the proscription on the use of biological weapons. All of this sought to limit combat to those prepared and dedicated to waging war and to rid the non-combatant population of such events. With these allusions, I am not inferring that COVID19 is a biological weapon in the context of the current pandemic, but rather I want to make it clear that, the war of narratives, can affect the management of the pandemic to the point of having the same consequences as if it was.
As is typical of the new era that is emerging, in this war against the Coronavirus as well as in the war of narratives, the phenomenon of convergence also occurs, and the borders between combatants and non-combatants are blurred, just as they are blurred between the fight against the virus or the fight against the geopolitical adversary. Borders are erased, because we can all be the object of viral contagion -with or without a fatal outcome- we can also be victims of deception -consciously or unconsciously- and we can all be combatants on one side or the other; after all, we already have – literally – the weapon in our hand: be it the COVID19 or the smartphone.
It is very difficult to face an enemy in the dark, that’s why pirates wore an eye patch. Most people believe that pirates lost eyes and hands in battle and so they wore a patch and a hook. Although some did loose eyes or hands in combat -or wrongly using the hook when an eye itched – truth is both the patch and the hook were combat instruments. The hook was used, -in addition to protecting the hand with its cup- grasping it by the hand that did not carry the sword, to draw ropes or grab railings and also to wound and skewer enemy combatants against the sword; the patch was placed over one eye while fighting on deck – usually in full sunlight – and lifted or changed eyes – a good time for a grappling hook accident – when entering the hold. Since the hold was dark, entering from the sunny deck with the pupils constricted generated temporary blindness, so covering in the deck and uncovering the eye once inside the hold, allowed them to see immediately – since their pupil was dilated – and thus they didn’t fight blind sighted.
The most egregious deceptions befall in broad daylight. This is why we must be aware of the – at least – two wars and many other skirmishes being fought today. Wars in which we must use masks and gloves, as well as patches and virtual hooks, to avoid the spread of different viruses and not be blinded and defenseless. It is clear that both are information wars which we may win or not, depending on the quality of the information influencing our decisions.
According to Dr. John P. Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, the data submitted by countries to WHO “is a complete fiasco in terms of the trust we can place in it.” In most cases, the infected are underrated and the fatal victims are either overrated or underrated: overrated when they ascribe to COVID19 the death of an infected person who was already on a terminal stage due to a previous disease, or underrated, when governments falsify information for propaganda purposes.
Due to the lack of preparation of the countries to face the epidemic – foreseen to become a pandemic-, sufficient diagnostic tests were not acquired to detect all the possible infected, or they were applied with an arbitrary and non-scientific criteria, or the tests were defective, or a combination of several. The issue is that the information on how many people were infected, when did the first infection occurred and in which part of the country, as well as knowing where the contagious person (s) came from, is of dubious reliability, which made us enter the hold of the Coronavirus with eyes wide open in fear, but practically blind sighted.
Already in 1668, Thomas Hobbes said in Leviathan: “Knowledge is power”, today we could update the phrase to “Information is power” since in the so-called Information Age, the most valuable asset is information. Just as information is the most valuable asset, it is also the most powerful weapon and shield. Today we are faced with this ubiquitous genetic code – which is nothing more than a stretch of information – and the most effective way to combat it, is with good facts or good quality information. If we review the demeanor or management of the different countries, we will see successful and misguided maneuvers, some can bring an end to the pandemic, but others may put an end to our freedoms; the most serious problem here is that the end of the pandemic may be short lived, but the end of our freedoms may be for the rest of our lives.
Since we accept the idea that we are at war, we also accept restrictive measures to our freedom and some invasion to our privacy, which we would not otherwise have accepted – at least in the democratic world – at any other time and circumstance. Common sense indicates that, in times of war, these individual rights are temporarily sacrificed to protect a greater good. This is not something new in democratic models. Already in ancient Greece, in times of war or social upheaval, democracy was suspended and a Tyrannos was installed. He ruled concentrating all or almost all power in order to achieve the goal of returning to normality; in the case of the Roman Republic the same recourse was employed in the figure of the Dictator. In most cases, these Tyrannos or Dictators held concentrated but not absolute powers, there was also a time limit to exercise them, as well as collegiate entities that supervised or controlled them. Certainly, there were Tyrannos and Dictators who sought to perpetuate themselves in power – which the Romans called imperium – and in the latter case, from temporary dictators they ended up with emperors for life; that’s when the Republic died and the Roman Empire was born.
If we analyze the response to the COVID19 pandemic, we can make two major divisions and then two other subdivisions: that of the Democratic States and that of the Authoritarian States. This two groups, in turn are subdivided into those that have managed it with some level of success and those who have done so in a pernicious or at least unsuccessful way. In all cases, there are several factors or elements that determine the result: information, time, freedom and solidarity; all this framed in a culture.
Among the great protagonists of the first group are Italy, Spain, the United States, Great Britain, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Germany, Panama, Costa Rica and Sweden, among others; and in the second group are China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, among others. If we analyze the data of each country, we note that there are, both in one group and in the other, countries with data indicating that they have the pandemic under control and that they will soon be able to start normalization. The problem is that in some of these countries, there is freedom of expression and a robust rule of law, while not in the others. Freedom of expression is perhaps the most important of freedoms, since without it, the others cannot be defended.
While we understand that in addition to the war on COVID19, we are in a war of narratives within a hegemonic conflict, as well as we are in internal processes of power concentration, it is healthy to trust the figures of the countries where there is freedom of expression and to question those of the countries that do not benefit from it.
To avoid falling into the list of countries that have mishandled the pandemic, I would like to focus on a handful of countries that, at least so far, seem to have done well. It is always better to study success and emulate it, than to describe failure and regret it.
Taiwan, Singapore, Israel, South Korea, Japan and Sweden appear to have tackled the pandemic on time and with a lower proportion of fatalities. In the first four cases, a powerful and effective information and data processing system was used in an intelligent way, not only limited to massive and focused application of laboratory tests, but also to highly sophisticated computer technology – even the one used for monitoring and combating terrorism – which was adapted to these countries new security threat. Strict sanitary measures were also implemented quickly. It is important to emphasize that, in all of them, there is freedom of expression and access to information, that the use of special technologies to combat terrorism applied against COVID19, was done after authorization procedures and installing supervisory mechanisms to ensure that such information is collected temporarily and only for use under this particular circumstance. All this has allowed the detection, collection and early care of those infected, both to avoid infections and to timely stop the individual evolution of the disease.
In these countries, necessary policies have also been applied, so that constrainig measures do not destroy the economic fabric and let it function effectively – as circumstances may allow – so as to speed up their economie’s recovery when time comes. In the case of Japan and -specially- Sweden, the restrictive measures imposed by the State have been few, since the these societies’ culture, either already had hygiene, personal distancing and physical contact reduction standards installed, or their sense of solidarity is so high, that people who suspect they have been in contact with the virus, went into voluntarily lockdown.
So far we have seen that countries with a robust rule of law, which have established policies with more and better information, implemented in the shortest time, together with social behaviors of greater solidarity at times of less freedom -but always protecting freedom of expression- are the ones where the best results have been achieved.
And yet it seems that those responsible for the pandemic and the least successful countries in managing it, intend to win the narrative about the model to combat it and the system within which to live in the future. These in turn have some political pickpockets that want to steal from us, not only the wallet, but also our liberties, taking advantage of the fact that we are distracted trying to save our lives.
We must be vigilant at this time – and even a little paranoid – because the fact that we accept to lose some freedom in order to save our lives, does not imply that we are willing to lose forever our life in freedom.
Milton Cohen-Henriquez Sasso