Civil Liberties & the Rhetoric of Physical Distancing

Aidan Hayes urges caution in how politicians, scholars, and health professionals defend responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Canada’s federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu has suggested that the many instances of Canadians refusing to comply with quarantine orders or disregarding advice to reduce contact with others “put our civil liberties in jeopardy” by necessitating increasingly coercive responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her words are indicative of the emerging consensus, reflected on this blog and elsewhere, that the current pandemic requires social responsibility to trump individual freedom.

Minister Hajdu is essentially correct. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 requires action by governments, some of it coercive. Consider the case of New Zealand, which adopted stringent “lockdown” physical distancing measures in late March, before COVID-19 had caused a single fatality. As of May 11, the entire nation of five million has suffered approximately 1 500 cases, with 21 confirmed deaths. To put this in perspective, this is less than the toll at a single nursing home in Atlantic Canada. Thus, closing stores, cancelling events, and restricting social interactions is both ethical and pragmatic.

However, there is something deeply concerning about claims, such as Minister Hajdu’s, which imply that government responses are motivated by social values that are in tension with individual freedom. Perhaps surprisingly, she shares rhetorical common ground with adversaries of physical distancing, who might charitably be called “distancing-resistant”.

Photo Courtesy: rawpixel. Image Description: Maintain at least 1 metre in public during coronavirus pandemic, a paper craft social template by WHO.

Opposition to pandemic measures has begun to take on an increasingly ideological character – and, in the United States especially, an extreme one. What began with spring breakers ignorant of the gravity of the pandemic evolved into pastors holding large gatherings in confined spaces in defiance of legal ordinances and a wave of political protests. This phenomenon reached new and alarming heights on April 30, when armed men entered the Michigan capitol building during a debate on the state’s physical distancing measures, demanding an end to restrictions on commerce and socialization. Reportedly, some carried white supremacist iconography.

The distancing-resistant cite a wide range of interests frustrated by physical distancing, from religious practice to employment to convenience. One claim, however, is almost universal: that pandemic measures infringe on one inalienable freedom or another. This argument mirrors Minister Hajdu’s plea for social responsibility; it places social responsibility in opposition to freedom.

Fortunately, taking COVID-19 seriously can be justified without placing social responsibility in opposition to freedom. After all, civil liberties do not permit individuals to place others at risk. Canadians are not “free” to drive at whatever speed they wish, to assault one another, or to dispose haphazardly of toxic substances on their lawns. Enforced physical distancing is much the same.

Laws such as speed limits do not circumscribe civil liberties, because they are necessary if others are to live freely. By analogy, if healthy individuals are “free” to work and socialize as they usually would, then the immunocompromised and other groups at elevated risk are not free from unnecessary jeopardy. Notably, those especially vulnerable to COVID-19 are often already oppressed or disadvantaged as well. Unrestricted choice that harms others is starting to look a good deal less like freedom and a good deal more like the supremacy of the strongest.

This is not to pretend that the era of COVID-19 does not gravely endanger individual liberty. From dictatorial rulers’ consolidation of power, to abusive enforcement, to expanded surveillance, it poses many. There is, however, a great deal of difference between preventing actions that are in themselves a danger to others, and exploitation of a crisis to pursue an existing authoritarian agenda. Nobody who cites “freedom” to demand that vulnerable persons risk death so that others can get a haircut should be taken seriously, especially not as a proponent of political freedoms.

Minister Hajdu is correct to warn that an escalation in the measures taken to enforce distancing may be necessary, but she should be more cautious in her language. The suggestion that civil liberties are “at risk” paints the picture of an illusory conflict between fundamental values, and gives the selfish a moral veneer for their choices.

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Aidan Hayes is a tutor at the Dalhousie Writing Centre.