‘Wartime’ coronavirus powers could hurt our democracy – without keeping us safe

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We are not at war with a virus. I don’t care how many politicians say it, from Xi Jinping’s “people’s war” to Donald Trump’s “our big war”, or how many pundits repeat it: we are not “at war” with the coronavirus. I know that in deeply militarized countries like the US, the term “war” is now simply used to emphasize the importance of an issue – from the non-existent “war on Christmas” that conservatives talk about to the liberal “war on poverty”. But words have meanings, and often real consequences, as we are still seeing in the “war on drugs” and “war on terror”.

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During a war, the liberal democratic order is temporarily suspended, and extraordinary measures are passed that significantly extend state powers and limit the population’s rights. Some of the extended state powers only marginally infringe upon the lives and rights of citizens, such as the creation of a “war economy” (ie making economic production subservient to wartime efforts), but others have traumatic consequences, such as the mass internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war.

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Across the world, government leaders have declared (and extended) states of emergency, in countries such as Spain, provinces such as Nova Scotia, Canada, and cities such as Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I’m writing this column in my liberal college town of Athens, Georgia, which declared a state of emergency a week ago and recently added a “shelter-in-place” ordinance to it – which is partly undermined by the much laxer response by nextdoor (Republican-run) Oconee county, so that Athens residents can still dine and shop there.

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