Surveillance takes on many different forms during a pandemic, according to Concordia researcher

Martin French: “We shouldn’t lose sight of the conditions that got us into a situation where we may acquiesce to proposals that many viewed as previously unreasonable.” | Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

In the rush to contain if not control the COVID-19 outbreak, governments worldwide are scrambling to employ every means at their disposal. This includes surveillance – a word that in popular cultural has taken on sinister connotations. But, in fact, it also covers valuable data-gathering and sharing by organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO).

In an editorial recently published in the journal Surveillance & Society, associate professor of sociology and anthropology Martin French argues that the pandemic is a social problem as well as a health one. He and co-author Torin Monahan at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill believe the COVID-19 surveillance guidelines issued by the WHO and governments like Canada’s ignore a far more complex social reality.

Martin FrenchMartin French

Surveillance is personal

French points to the growth of what he calls “lateral and participatory surveillance” and its effects on our daily lives. Lateral surveillance, he says, is “not coming top down from the government, but is laterally distributed in the social body – neighbours informing on each other for failing to maintain physical distance, for instance.”

This kind of surveillance often overlaps with epidemiological surveillance done by states and clinical surveillance carried out by medical professionals, and it can carry negative consequences.

“There have been a number of cultural ramifications around suppositions of where this virus originated,” he says. “We have the President of the United States calling this the Wuhan virus and assaults are taking place against ‘Asian-looking’ individuals. These ‘racist flames,’ which were already burning before the pandemic, are now being fanned by problematic racial tropes that are mobilized through participatory surveillance.”

These messages can be self-reinforcing thanks to a reliance on social media algorithms to deliver our information, particularly when consumers are being channeled into narrow “filter bubbles,” the authors write.

Who is winning the pandemic?

While China is being blamed by some for the spread of the coronavirus, others are praising the country for using the same surveillance techniques it employs to control and repress minority groups like Uighur Muslims. The authors further warn that the current global health crisis could be used to normalize oppressive surveillance measures and open the door to further state-sponsored oppression.

French and Monahan are also wary of the private sector’s growing “surveillance solution” industry, with companies like Google developing tracking measures that are not fully understood or whose consequences have not been anticipated.

“These solutions may take on an air of reasonableness in the context of a crisis. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the conditions that that got us into a situation where we may acquiesce to proposals that many viewed as previously unreasonable, such as corporately controlled or supported contact tracing,” French explains.

“Nor should we lose sight of the difference between public solutions to infectious diseases, which have an obligation to serve the entire public, and private-sector solutions, which only have obligations to shareholders. What are we getting when we opt for these solutions? Who will be advantaged and who will be disadvantaged?”

The authors conclude that while we are still in the thick of the pandemic’s grip, solutions to fighting it must be centred on human rights.

Read the paper: “Dis-ease Surveillance: How Might Surveillance Studies Address COVID-19?

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