Fellow Guardian columnist, Wesley Gibbings, in his submission printed on Wednesday, August 19, wrote about his re-reading of George Orwell’s 1984 and how it related to his thoughts on Guyana’s election. Coincidentally… I too recently decided to revisit this renowned work of fiction. I suppose that with all the news and talk of our own election, words like party, leader, prosperity, and security, left an imprint on my subconscious and guided me into selecting it from my library. Admittedly, while it is one of my favourite books, it’s not one that I thumb through on a whim. And it’s not because I find its depiction of a dystopian future unsettling.
I’m not going to provide a detailed synopsis here; if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. Orwell’s book describes a world in which notions of social egalitarianism have been appropriated by a totalitarian regime. It is antithetical to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto which exults a “workers’ paradise” achieved through socialism. Instead, the government in 1984, known as “the Party”, imposes a harsh sense of order that not only seeks to control the work and actions of citizens… but what they think as well.
So why then do I approach 1984 with caution? To quote Mr Gibbings, when reading it, “…your own personal, contemporary context determining the things to which you pay the most attention and consider vitally important.”
This, for me, was the subtle warnings about the road our government is leading us on. Am I suggesting that the current administration is equal to the dreaded “Ingsoc”, or, in time, is capable of becoming an iteration of it? No… at least not quite so malevolent an entity. However, I couldn’t help but find some of its actions disturbingly similar.
Though several important themes permeate the novel, two of the most important ones are the lack of privacy and the rewriting of history. Both are integral tools for “the Party” in maintaining control. As the story unfolds we learn that no individual is alone; the omnipresent “Big Brother” is always watching you.
In T&T, privacy is a flexible concept, for ours is a society of openly known secrets. You could even say that the more secretive the information, the more it ends up being shared. Trinis love to talk about other people’s business, which means that nothing stays hidden for long. And that includes if you attended a “down de islands” birthday lime or an engagement party where no one wore a mask or practised social distancing.
And if you happen to get infected with COVID-19? Well, with the way testing is being conducted these days, you don’t know for sure who has it and who doesn’t.
That brings us to the re-writing of history, or, in this case, the distorting of facts. In the book, “the Party’s” motto is “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” And that ties into the government’s handling of COVID-19. It has been repeatedly pointed out by Dr David Bratt, another fellow columnist, that testing in T&T has been woefully deficit. Detection is necessary for containment, and since the country doesn’t have an idea as to the real number of cases, we don’t know the extent of community spread. But that didn’t stop the Rowley administration from boasting it had achieved success. They even touted it as proof that their draconian measures—the shutdown and the closed borders—were working.
Yet they couldn’t explain why there was a sudden spike in cases after the country supposedly flattened the curve. Sure there were speculations that it was being spread by untested Venezuelans illegally entering the country, or by the returning nationals. But no one knew for sure. Even then, that didn’t stop the decision to proceed with the elections.
Practising social distancing didn’t seem all that important at the rallies and the motorcades. Now we’re experiencing another spike in cases. And the country is again being forced to endure another shutdown. Is the government accepting any of the blame? No. And who are we to suggest that it should? All we are expected to do, is trust that it is doing what it must for our protection. Am I the only one who finds this troubling?
Sceptics might accuse me of being paranoid. And maybe they’re right. But Prime Minister Rowley recently posted on his social media page an address given by Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
“During a war, you don’t insist on your freedom. You willingly give it up in exchange for survival.”
It seems like a sensible trade-off —our rights for the sake of protection from an imminent threat. Unfortunately, that’s how democracies often make the bloodless transition to authoritarianism. Right now, for the sake of our survival, the economy is being wrecked, our movements are being restricted, some citizens are being forcibly quarantined while others are left stranded in foreign countries, and you can be arrested for not wearing a mask or for congregating in groups.
And all of this is because the government failed to do an effective job in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
Of course, they’ll tell us otherwise—that they’ve been doing a great job… and we, in true Orwellian fashion, will believe them.