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#Mockdown and The Totalitarianism of Loneliness

It’s a cloudy January morning. The sky is the texture of curdled milk. I’m at my desk, about to log on to a zoom meeting with a student. Suddenly, my Iphone shrieks with an alert.

A stay-at-home order is in effect. Only leave home for essential purposes such as food, healthcare, exercise or work. It is the law…

I shudder at the interruption, put down my phone, and join the meeting. My student is as rattled as I am.

Ontario’s most recent lockdown order may seem like a necessary evil. There’s nothing wrong with mask mandates and distancing - although one wonders why Walmart and Costco are still open. But the order leaves much to interpretation, giving police a great deal of leeway: “A police or bylaw officer “who has reasonable and probable grounds” to believe that a person is breaking the stay-at-home order “may require the individual to provide the officer with the individual’s correct name, date of birth and address.” The person “shall promptly comply.”

In essence, carding, a practice long used by Toronto Police to marginalize vulnerable communities, has been reinstated. Racialized folks in Toronto, including over more than 200,000 undocumented migrants, many of whom don’t have the option of working at home, have every reason be concerned.

As Yasmine Grey wrote in the Toronto Star:, “Ford’s framing of the spread of COVID-19 as one caused by “bad actors” also demonizes individuals who test positive for COVID-19. This is especially true for Black and racialized people, who make up 83 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases in Toronto. […] Ford’s rhetoric also contributes to the ideology of policing as inherently good and protective, while criminalizing Black and Brown people as the spreaders of COVID-19”.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, published 6 years after WWII. I hoped that the experiences of my father’s generation would give me courage. But I am also concerned about the rise in right wing violence around the world. In a peer-reviewed study of populations in UK and Ireland, T.K. Hartman et al observed that anxiety surrounding the Covid 19 pandemic, allowed right- wing groups to “exert a substantial effect on […] nationalism and anti-immigration attitudes’ (27)”.

The white riot in the US capitol on January 6 may be an extreme example of this, but white uprisings happen here, too. The earliest recorded race riot in North America happened in Canada, in 1786, when white Loyalists destroyed the homes of free Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. We could consider the recent ‘protests’ against Mi’kmaq lobster fishers, complete with racial epithets and burnings, to be another such demonstration of white supremacy.

Hartman et al report that: “Far-right political groups have reportedly used the pandemic to promote anti-immigration and anti-Muslim attitudes.” Similarly, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for Ontario’s Ford government to harden its agenda on precarious populations.

Ford’s current stay at home orders are vague enough to pacify his right- wing base, while empowering police to a greater extent than before, despite- or perhaps because of - the 51% of Toronto citizens that support defunding the police. Twitterati are calling it #MockDown, but it’s more than that. This lockdown is a display of authority. It says: we are doing this because we can. And as we all know, these stay at home orders, without funding for paid sick leave, make certain populations more vulnerable to to community spread, and to further social isolation. As Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association

wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, quoting a coalition of HIV justice organizations, “Criminalization is not an evidence-based response to public health issues. In fact, the use of the criminal law most often undermines public health by creating barriers to prevention, testing, care, and treatment — for example, people may not disclose their status or access treatment for fear of being criminalized.”

Arendt argues that totalitarian governments use isolation as a way to destroy community: “[Totalitarianism] bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

I would not label Ford totalitarian at this point, but there is an increasingly authoritarian tone to his government mandates. Ford is, after all, on record as supporting not only Trump, but the white supremacist Proud Boys as well.

Arendt defines totalitarianism in part as: a) supplanting the party with a movement; and b) shifting the centre of power from army to police. We saw Trump’s cops loading Black protesters into unmarked vans. Ford recently increased funding for Ontario Provincial Police by $25 million. Trump deregulated LTC homes in 2019; Ford did so in 2020. From a law and order agenda ( Enforcement and inspections will increase”) to the dismissive attitude towards public education, Ford has been following Trump’s playbook all along.

Many of us are waiting until we’re vaccinated and things get back to normal. But in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt warns: “all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain”.

Contemporary disavowals of Trump have opened our eyes to the rise of nationalist rhetoric in Canada. Perhaps that, along with the current change in administration in the U.S., will help us to start sounding the alert about authoritarianism on this side of the border.

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