In January, if you had told me that it would be possible for countries the world over to go into lockdown mode, for businesses to be shut down by the state, and for hundreds of millions of people to be under mandatory social distancing orders, I never would have believed you.
But now, just several months later, here we are: Trapped in a dystopian world where most people can’t leave their houses, and where social interaction is only acceptable through telecommunication, with no guaranteed end in sight.
Of course, coronavirus is a serious issue, and we should absolutely be trying to minimize the risk of infection and the spread of the disease. However, sadly it’s becoming more and more apparent that the virus is no longer the only threat we have to face. Governments, both on local and national levels, have begun enacting increasingly authoritarian measures, and now, the issue of state overreach and the erosion of civil liberties has, for many, become just as concerning as the potentially deadly illness.
“Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures”
Under times of duress, like a pandemic, most accept government restrictions on our day to day lives that, in normal circumstances, would be unacceptable. School closures and travel bans, for example, were measures taken fairly early on to combat the spread of COVID-19 that, although less than ideal, were understood to be necessary by the general public.
As the projections of total deaths from the virus have increased, so has the severity of government action.
But, as the projections of total deaths from the virus have increased, so has the severity of government action. Now, many states and countries have enacted mandatory business closures, and even more worrisome, stay-at-home orders that dictate when and if you can leave your house, and the “acceptable” reasons for doing so. Ironically, while bars are considered "non-essential" for example, liquor stores have remained open in most states.
The effects of these constraints have, predictably, been disastrous economically. The markets of many countries are freefalling toward depression, millions have lost their jobs, and countless businesses are heading toward bankruptcy.
Although it might be argued that the financial effects we’re seeing are only temporary, and that economies will bounce back after this is all over, the idea that governments will simply lift their restrictions when the time comes, especially in regard to individuals’ freedom of movement, is dubious.
The cure we’ve been sold may be worse than the disease.
In terms of social consequences, every day it seems there are new headlines describing the draconian enforcement of social distancing measures. In several countries, individuals were actually being fined for innocuous activities such as going for a drive or mountain biking. Both activities likely harbor a much smaller chance of catching coronavirus than a trip to the grocery store or pharmacy (which are still permitted), but regardless, authorities in certain areas have deemed them unacceptable. In one particularly outrageous incident, police kicked in a man’s door after a neighbor (falsely) reported that he was having a party. And most shockingly, one father was actually put in handcuffs for playing ball with his daughter and wife in an empty park.
Unfortunately, it appears that we’ve come to a point where, even acknowledging that coronavirus is more deadly than the average flu, the cure we’ve been sold may be worse than the disease.
For Our “Health and Safety”? Yeah, Right...
There are, of course, those who believe that the harsh measures and limits on civil liberties are necessary to save lives. But while the desire to protect people from the virus (especially the elderly and the immunocompromised) is understandable, upon closer inspection, it’s doubtful whether some of the restrictions we’re currently living with and their implementation have any benefit to public safety.
It's doubtful whether some of the restrictions we’re currently living with and their implementation have any benefit to public safety.
The story of a solo surfer being arrested for violating social distancing, despite not even being within earshot of another person, has raised questions about whether certain restrictions really exist for our health and safety or rather as a means to control the population. And similarly, the recent crackdown of “drive-through” church services seems like an exercise in authoritarianism for authoritarianism’s sake.
Based on the fact that many drive-through restaurants, pharmacies, and banks have continued to operate, and that drive-through testing centers for coronavirus have actually been set-up by governments themselves in specific areas, it’s reasonable to assume that public health experts have deemed the risk of transmission to be low when individuals remain in their own cars.
However, since churches have attempted to apply this same principle to their own services by having “drive-ins,” where people remain in their cars for services, some worshippers have been shocked to see the police waiting for them, and even writing them tickets. This is exactly what happened in Greenville, Mississippi earlier this month, where police issued attendants $500 tickets each for assembling in their church’s parking lot. And although Greenville’s mayor eventually reversed the decision to prohibit drive-in church services after enormous backlash and a lawsuit from the church’s pastor, similar prohibitions continue to exist in other towns and cities.
So, are people in their vehicles at unacceptable risk of COVID-19 infection? Or, does the amount of risk tolerated depend on the circumstances?
So, are people in their vehicles at unacceptable risk of COVID-19 infection? Or, does the amount of risk tolerated depend on the circumstances? And if that’s the case, does that then mean that it’s an acceptable risk for people to be able pick up their Starbucks or McDonald’s orders, but not to exercise their freedom of religion and assembly? These are questions that should be guiding coronavirus response policies from both public health and civil liberties standpoints, but the fact that no one seems to know the answers to them is troubling, to say the least.
Everyone wants to keep people, especially the most vulnerable among us, safe. But in our quest for security, we may have been too quick to accept regulations that not only violate our rights, but may be ineffective at curtailing the spread of coronavirus anyway. For some reason, we’ve accepted a false dichotomy between taking no precautions against the virus and accepting totalitarian control over lives in the name of quarantining the virus.
Social distancing is good. Wearing masks and gloves is good. Washing our hands frequently is good. As individuals, we should do what we can to limit the spread of COVID-19. What we should not do, though, is surrender essential freedoms that have been hard fought for because we are scared of what the future holds.