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Coronavirus: Public Health Versus Civil Liberties


March 27, 2020

During our regional bi-annual update call, I shared my thoughts on public health and civil liberties with the McCain Institute team and fellow NGLs from the Balkans. We agreed that there should always be a balance between them, respective of the challenges.

During our meeting, General Ben Freakley shared General John Schofield’s definition of discipline:

“The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.”

Today, when we are at war with an enemy almost invisible, General Schofield’s words are a valuable advice for all free societies. Our governments should act relying on trust more than force.

During the past few months, as the world clinched with COVID-19, governments adopted different approaches and strategies to fight off the threat. Today, we look at a pandemic so powerfully that it challenges and tests not only the foundations of our healthcare systems, but the foundations of our Western civilization – democracy, human rights and civil liberties.

Up until the 20th century, the “state reason” was the main concern for most of the governments. For the governments at the time, a healthy citizen was more valuable than a free one, and public health always took precedent over civil liberties. This way of thinking has not disappeared even today.

Today, we see a part of our traditional media and elements of our social networks praising China and effectiveness of its iron fist approach to contain the spread of COVID-19. This simplistic interpretation neglects the fact that countries like Germany or South Korea are much more efficient in handling the virus outbreak without actually recurring to limitations the Chinese government imposed on its people.

In fact, today, an increasing number of experts claim the COVID-19 outbreak would have not exploded into a pandemic had the Chinese society had the system of checks and balances in form of free media to question the way Chinese officials handled the outbreak in its early stages. What looks as strength emerged as the biggest fault of the system and has exposed the entire world to the deadly virus.

It seems the Chinese government is also aware of this. As the pandemics calmed down in China, its government seems to have engaged in a global damage control operation to shift the public attention from the question of its responsibility for the pandemics.

As a result, we have an ongoing campaign to undermine the role NATO and the European Union have in the war against pandemics and present the two blocks as weak and helpless. The effects are obvious. A video surfaced on social networks showing an Italian citizen taking down the EU flag on his city hall and hoisting in its place a Chinese red flag. In a similar scenario, another Italian replaced the EU flag with a Russian flag following news that Russia sends planes full of equipment. In an expected twist of fate, the leading Italian daily reported the most of the equipment flew in from Russia to be absolutely useless.

This iron fist narrative is strengthened on social media with different videos, such as those from India showing local police beating up people for not obeying the imposed curfew. Another video showed Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering his staff to immediately shut down all pharmacies where medical masks are sold at prices higher than usual.

The Hungarian government used the COVID-19 as a pretext to introduce a set of laws further strengthening the regime’s grip on Hungarian society. In Poland, the ruling party did not shy from further demonizing its political opposition.

Finally, in the Balkans, Serbia sent heavily armed soldiers to patrol the streets and enforce a curfew. In Albania, armored vehicles occupied the streets across the country in what seems to be a way to portray governments as anything but what they really are – helpless and unprepared. The Montenegrin government, on the other hand, received praises for its handling of the threat.

Fully aware of the challenges of putting a country in lockdown, the Montenegrin government maintains a publicly accessible list containing the names of people ordered into self-isolation due to their potential exposure to COVID-19. In a small country, with a population of 600,000, they hoped this measure will empower society to protect itself.

Once introduced, it raised concerns from the civil sector and professional media, proving once again that the Montenegrin society is both able and willing to question its government and protect constitutional and civil freedoms. Major international organizations, such as the Civil Rights Defenders, actively engaged to question the implementation of the measure.

Today, when war on pandemics calls for unpopular confinement measures, the question remains – where are limits of government actions? Where medical necessity and common sense stop and civil liberties begin? And why we are obviously willing to sacrifice some civil rights and individual freedoms to stay alive, the question we have to keep putting is how extensive should this sacrifice be?

Democratically elected leaders around the globe are acting and some are going over and beyond legality. In the U.S., local quarantine experts question measures, like those taken in San Francisco area, most likely to be challenged in courts. The judges will then have to balance individual civil liberties and constitutional rights on one side and the need to protect public health on the other.

A lesson is to be learned from this crisis; the crisis that we should perceive not as a peril, but as a wake-up call for global leaders of the free world to sit together at the same table and agree on the protocols that will be followed during the similar scenarios in the future, scenarios that are already foreseen. There are no excuses left.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Publish Date
March 27, 2020