2020 has been an unprecedented year for the entire world, in more ways than one. And while in many countries, the realities of governmental restrictions and lockdowns may be business as usual, in other Western countries, particularly the U.S. which has never had an authoritarian regime, such measures raise the question as to where the concern for public health ends and the concern for personal freedom starts?
As I dove into the research for this article, the difficulty I had was to define what were basic human rights and whether those were universally accepted. I reached for the United Nations’ definition, for definitions that come from respected thought-leaders, and, most importantly, I reached for the Bill of Rights.
Based on my analysis of these sources, we will attempt to answer this most pertinent question: Is the government working to protect our rights or to infringe them?
What Are Human Rights?
According to the UN, “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”
Let’s break down these items in light of the Coronavirus restrictions:
Life and Liberty: As lockdown measures become stricter, liberty goes out of the window. The government may not specifically be targeting life, but by preventing millions from having the ability to “earn a living,” how far from that reality are we? How long can a human being survive without food?
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”―MLK, Jr.
Freedom from Slavery and Torture: Economic slavery is a form of slavery. And, for many, especially those who struggle with depression or alcoholism, the prospect of what is essentially a house arrest order that limits their ability to interact with their communities, could be argued as torture. Human beings were not meant to hide alone in caves, and house arrest is considered a punishment by law. We are essentially being punished, for committing no crime at all.
Freedom of Opinion and Expression: Stay-At-Home Orders prohibit gatherings and people from leaving their homes unless strictly necessary. Whether protesting is considered strictly necessary or not is up to the discretion of those who make and enforce such orders. The only “safe space” in which one can engage in free speech would be the internet, but increasing censorship on online platforms makes us wonder the true extent our opinions can be shared. And it doesn’t look like we’re free.
The Right to Work and Education: Who decides who is “essential” and who is not? Single parents can no longer drop off their kids at school while they’re out working to win the family’s bread. Children are being taught online (which many can’t adapt to), classes are being cancelled without prospect of return, and work, well…According to the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Jobless Claims Top 20 Million Since Start of Shutdowns.”
“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”―Aung San Suu Kyi
As we can see, it appears that the International Declaration of Rights is being infringed upon due to lockdown orders. But more specifically, in the United States, a country known for its freedom values, how are these orders fairing in relation to our Bill of Rights?
The Bill of Rights
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Federal and state lawmakers are working in different capacities to ensure that restrictive measures are complied with, but despite states having sovereignty to determine the extent of such laws, we are still a federation. One country. And the Federal government has the duty to protect us when our governors fail. While Congress is not writing these laws, it is sitting idly by while the very concept which the First Amendment protects is clearly under attack as churches are forced to close and members are punished for attending even drive-in services.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”―MLK, Jr.
“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
In many states, by the governor's discretion, guns and ammunition shops are not considered essential and therefore not allowed to stay open. Further, a well-regulated militia would imply some sort of gathering, which, as we know, is no longer allowed.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The right of the people to be secure in their own person and papers, against unreasonable seizure that is not supported by oath. Well…As per The Intercept, “The three individuals appear to be among the first in the city to be arrested over the Covid-19 mitigation measures — despite city officials promising that those disregarding the lockdown would face fines at most. Violating social distancing is not a crime per se, but each of the individuals arrested was charged with obstructing governmental administration, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct.”
“Freedom cannot be bestowed — it must be achieved.”―Elbert Hubbard
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
This one is fairly obvious: businesses and churches have been forced to close, and our ability to assemble and to move about freely has been restricted.
Are Our Rights Being Infringed Upon?
From my perspective, as someone who lived under 16 years of Socialism in Brazil and saw first hand how it affected my family and my country so deeply, it really troubles me to see the ability of those in power to neglect the laws of the country and the will of the people, only to the benefit of their own political agenda. One could argue that such politicians were elected by the people, but in times where campaigns cost millions of dollars every two years, most people can’t afford to run, and we’re left with a pool of candidates to choose from that ends up repeating the cycle of political games term after term. Meanwhile, we grow farther away from true democratic representation.
Although the government can print money, most people cannot. As I lived through poverty with my brother and my single mom, I understand how public policy has the ability to ruin lives, cause starvation, and trigger many societal problems that will outlast our generation, from environmental to criminal to economic justice and many more.
“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be."―James Baldwin
I’ve watched in horror as so many sit idly by while the authorities abuse their power in unconstitutional ways. They excuse it as “It is for public health, it will end soon,” but the fact is, we were never actually told when these lockdowns would end. And even if they do end tomorrow, we have given the government a powerful message that we would allow our rights to be trampled on for the sake of a possible sense of safety. And who is to say another leader in the future won’t use this message against us?
The truth is that our ancestors fought hard for the rights we enjoy today, and the least we can do is to question our representatives when it seems as if they are being violated. While it’s up to you to decide the extent to which your rights are being infringed upon (and what to do about it), I have compiled a few famous quotes, to help guide you as you make up your mind.
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”―Thomas Jefferson
“Better to die fighting for freedom than be a prisoner all the days of your life.”―Bob Marley
"The time is always right to do what is right." ―MLK, Jr.