OPINION: The politics of epidemic immunity

“It won’t take long for Thais to develop immunity from coronavirus”, the post read, “but if we don’t deal with the nation-hating virus, a crisis will ensue.” 

Dr. Warong Dechgitvigrom is not a politician known for pulling his punches, and this Facebook post was true to form. ‘Lutti chung-chard’, he had recently titled Thailand’s opposition forces — ‘the cult of nation-haters’. To say the opposition was even more dangerous than a new epidemic might have offended some sensibilities, but it spoke to his genuine concerns of an opposition too radicalised and too dangerous. 

And indeed they are reflected amongst broader segments of the population. “Why are the nation-hating opposition filing for a motion of no confidence against the government while the Wuhan coronavirus rages on?”, one popular right-wing account on Twitter asked. It is time, the argument goes, for unity and rallying around the flag. Partisan bickering is a pleasure reserved for periods of normalcy; to doubt the government now is to harm the country. 

In this line of thinking, then, developing immunity from the coronavirus is merely a mundane concern. Developing immunity to the epidemic of nation-hating must be prioritised.

As it turns out, Dr. Warong was not the first to think along these lines. Michael Montesano recently wrote in the New Mandala of the notion of “immunity” in national security. The Prayut administration, Montesano argued, has been seeking to “immunize” Thais against political conflict and domestic turmoil. The term appears in both the 20-Year National Strategy and the National Security Policy.

But how can that immunity be developed in a democracy? The short answer, inevitably, is that it can’t. To be immunised to social discord is to depoliticise and demobilise society, to create a politics where people passively accept the decisions of government without being given an opportunity for their own voice to be heard. Conflict is of the essence of democratic politics; to have no conflict is to not practice democracy.

It falls into a line of thinking first formulated by the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. He wrote that in the beginning humankind lived in the ‘state of nature’, a condition in which no authority existed that was capable of enforcing any sort of law, leading to a “war of all against all”. Life was, Hobbes wrote, “nasty, brutish and short.” 

How, then, did humankind pull itself from this condition? There was a solution, Hobbes said. Everybody was to give up their individual rights and submit themselves to the authority of the state. To be sure, this was a loss of liberty, but the reward was security and protection guaranteed by what Hobbes termed a leviathan — a strong government. 

Submission to a leviathan was the immunisation of humankind against a life too nasty, brutish and short — what an English philosopher wrote rings a familiar bell four centuries later in how Thai policymakers are thinking.

And so it seems to Dr. Warong, and other subscribers of this theory, that a cult of nation-haters will destroy the country, have fallen into this Hobbesian trap. After one has submitted to leviathan, devotion becomes duty — to criticise the government risks hastening its breakdown and suffering all the consequences that follow. 

But this immunity is not only impossible, it is undesirable. Hobbes wanted a strong sovereign state, but no power is infallible. Blind obedience of the government of the day makes Thais less immune to other dangers.

Take, for example, the coronavirus. 

The government’s response to the coronavirus was initially confusing and hesitant. Public dissatisfaction ensured that the government took stronger steps to combat this epidemic: ramping up airport screenings, for example. 

The government dithered before finally evacuating Thais from Wuhan. Without sustained social pressure, would it have done so? Perhaps, but the peoples’ voice certainly strengthened their resolve.

Now that the prime minister recently chastened Thais for complaining about the increase in the prices of air masks, social media has erupted to show how other governments are providing their citizens with free masks. 

Will this lead to policy change? Should it, considering the fact that even the World Health Organization does not recommend masks for healthy people? It is hard to say, but this kind of debate is exactly what is needed to find the best solutions. 

We need not immunise ourselves against public debate, because avoiding such immunisation will indeed lead to stronger immunisation against the dizzying array of real problems the country faces. Scrutiny of the government leads to better policymaking. And better policymaking is what Thais deserve. 

To call government critics nation haters is to indulge in one false equivalency: that the government is the same as the nation. But that is emphatically not the case. It is not wrong to scrutinise the government and to advocate for change in times of crisis. Indeed, it may be the patriotic thing to do. 

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