I don’t know where to start, but I know I need to write. I need to write about the divisions and tensions in the society the COVID crisis has stirred up, but I don’t want my writing to create even more divisions. While words are limited, I trust they will come from and be heard by the heart.
As in many other cities around the world, on Saturday there was a gathering in Zagreb named Festival of freedom to challange the anti-corona measures. I don’t know much about the organisers, though I know that there were some ‘conspiracy theorists’ present and that at some point a few right wing politicians and public figures showed up. However, I also know that there were a lot of other people present there as well – ‘the new age’ and spiritual seekers, healers, scientists, families, older people, curious people, people who were not happy with the ‘(new) normal’. And I know that messages spoken and shared were mostly kind.
The amount of furry this protest invoked from people who are human rights defenders really surprised me. Some of my very good acquaintances, with whom I marched together on other occasions, labelled the protestors either as crazy, right wing, irresponsible or all of that, and some even called for criminal sanctions, a very unpopular measure from the human rights perspective. While I can understand that most of these people were afraid of the possible public health consequences of the protest, I was less able to understand the anger at the presence of different people and ridiculing all the protesters.
It was really interesting for me to observe that I and the people with whom I have had so much in common for so many years were now on the ‘opposite sides’ (although this has actually happened to me quite a few times). I was supportive of the protesters who indeed included some people I have very little in common with.
While the disagreement was mostly framed by the mainstream media as “those bad guys who do not believe in COVID and support irrational governance” v. “those good guys who understand human rights implications of the pandemic response but think it is necessary”, it was much more than that. It was about (mis)understanding, inclusion/exclusion and human rights, the topics I have been concerned with and working on for quite some time.
This disagreement really opened my eyes: how easy it is to dismiss, exclude and ridicule the others, and how uncomfortable it is to occupy common spaces with those you disagree. On the other hand, common agreement is so elusive – you might be on the same page with others on a certain issue, or two or three, but the more you uncover, the less common your views will be.
I remember realising this for the first time. I was at a women’s rights training and one evening we started to talk about race. Suddenly we had a split in our tightly held group of comrades. I also remember how angry I was and uncomfortable to be in the group after that. I was quick to judge others and I had the human rights language to do so.
My human rights language expanded with years. Moreover, my understanding of the world, of myself, expanded as well. I realised that it is not always so easy to agree on what the substance of a particular right is in a specific situation, as different people define ‘harm’ (the criterion for limiting human rights) in a different way. And while human rights law may set up some defining principles, only humans themselves can re-define what is harmful to them. And the less they fear the harm, the more freedom there is and less limitations to human rights. Maybe even less need for an authority to define them.
Applying this to the situation of the covid-19 crisis, the authority has defined that the risk of the transmission of the virus constitutes a legitimate justification for the limitation of the different rights: freedom of movement, the right to work, the right to private life. In other words, different restrictions have been justified by the protection of the right to health. I am going to skip the question of how serious the threat is (as we have cases of both mild and very severe symptoms) and accept that the measures have a legitimate goal. Still the question of proportionality remains: are the measures reasonable, effective and do they respect the very core of rights? I am not going to answer this in a legalistic manner here, but I can say that many, many people – those who protested on Saturday, and those who were against protest – actually think these are legitimate questions and fear the further intrusions in our lives and the consequences these measures will have on the economy and the well-being of people.
Indeed, we know that the issue is quite complicated even when it comes to the protection of health: while the measures are aimed at protecting health, they have made it harder for many chronic (and other) patients to access medical services, they have had an impact on the mental health of many people, including those providing medical services, and have put many people in precarious situations, disproportionately affecting those who had already been in a situation of vulnerability. So, what constitutes harm in this situation is also not easily answered, another thing many people on both sides – those who went to the protest, and those who ridiculed it – understand.
Why were then some of the people, who understand human rights and have been engaged in defending them, so furious at the protestors? Why was it so easy to see only the flat earthers, conspiracy theorists of right-wing inclinations in the protesters, rather than people concerned with where these types of responses to the crisis can lead us? Why do we not see the common concern (the consequences of the measures), and instead focus on the differences (the best way to respond to it)? Why do we keep choosing divisions instead of unity?
What type of the response to the crisis did we embrace? War like response, in my opinion (I know, I am risking it now to be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist). This time we have not waged the war against the people of other nationalities or political orientation (though you can never escape these dimensions to creep in any crisis) but against the virus. And in some long-standing democracies it really looks like a war with the heavy police and army presence on the streets.
But don’t we know how war looks like, why do we think that this ‘war’ would be different, and why do we so easily dismiss the consequences?
I am not suggesting that we can ignore the crisis; indeed, this situation calls for a serious re-thinking of everything we know, of re-building our social structures. On an individual level, it calls us to re-think our understanding of and our response to dis-ease, and our relationship with death. It calls on us to see how we are creating dis-ease and re-think what we can do to enhance our well-being: how to bust our immunity, how to lead more healthy and peaceful life-styles.
On a social level, the crisis calls upon us to question our social structures, our power dynamics and re-think how we can create more healthy and peaceful societies. It requires that we re-build the society so that vulnerabilities are not exploited but embraced, to awaken the power within, rather than exercising the power over others. To re-think the concept of authority as well as the concept of human rights, protected by the same authority whose actions they are supposed to limit.
The disagreement that the protest steered gives us the opportunity to do this: to re-think our dogmas, on all spectrums, embrace the differences, stop fearing each other, take responsibility and expand our understanding of ourselves, our societies, the concept of human rights. To be willing to put aside our judgments, embrace the unknown, embrace the chaos and the different responses people have to the chaos.
According to the map of the 5 Rhythm dance which I practice, the lyrical rhythm follows the chaos, bringing the quality of a new, more gentle, subtle dance. But it can only come if we embrace, rather than fight the chaos. Embracing the chaos means embracing all the conflictual, different parts of our existence as a human society.