Coronavirus is no excuse for totalitarianism

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold suffering, from the lives lost to the economic devastation to the stress of routines being upended. But the most upsetting aspect of the crisis, in my opinion, is the curtailment of individual liberty. Local, state, and national governments have implemented increasingly strict measures to stop the spread of the virus, many of which violate people’s rights and therefore are morally wrong.

Many, if not most, states in the U.S. have enacted stay-at-home orders, meaning that all businesses are banned from operating, other than those that the government has deemed essential. Restaurant service, sporting events, and most retail shopping is banned. So are gatherings of more than ten people. People are urged, with varying degrees of coerciveness, not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.

As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes in an excellent column, the amount of power that the government has seized merely by declaring an emergency is disturbing. “In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker is empowered by state law to ‘exercise any and all authority over persons and property’ in whatever way he deems necessary to cope with the crisis. The law allows him to do virtually anything – from banning weddings to prohibiting travel to commandeering utilities to closing schools to throwing innumerable people out of work by declaring their jobs nonessential. Legislative approval is not required. Nor is a public vote. Nor is there any fixed date on which those godlike powers must be surrendered. Similarly sweeping emergency powers are available to governors in other states. Many similar powers are available to the president.”

A sample of authoritarian measures that governments have taken around the U.S. is as follows:

  • In Maryland, violations of the stay-at-home order are punishable by a year in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. One person has been arrested for inviting people over for a bonfire, and another for hosting a party for teenagers. Governor Larry Hogan said, “I don’t know why other governors have not taken these steps.” Umm… maybe because these steps violate everyone’s rights?
  • Virginia enacted a stay-at-home order that will be in place until June 10. Those who participate in gatherings of more than 10 people or go to beaches or campgrounds are subject to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti began issuing rewards for people who report violations of the city’s “Safer at Home” order. “If any non-essential businesses continue to operate in violation of the stay at home order, we’re going to act to enforce the safer at home order and ensure their compliance,” he threatened. “You know the old expression about snitches, well in this case snitches get rewards. We want to thank you for turning folks in and making sure we are all safe.” Garcetti also threatened those who had the audacity to gather at parks and beaches, telling them “we know who you are.”  According to LA Daily News columnist Susan Shelley, the city has been using a technology called Everbridge to surveill citizens. “We’d better put some state constitutional limits on government ’emergency’ powers before we’re living in East Germany on the Pacific,” she correctly adds.
  • Beverly Hills, CA has required residents to wear masks whenever leaving their homes.
  • San Bernardino County, CA has banned people from doing anything remotely festive for Easter. “People may not leave their homes for driving parades or drive-up services or to pick up non-essential items such as packaged Easter eggs or bags filled with candy and toys at a drive-through location,” a statement said.
  • Chula Vista, CA is considering using drones to surveill people and order them to go home. “It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives,” said Spencer Gore, chief executive of drone company Impossible Aerospace. (Similar measures have already been used in Belgium and China.)
  • In Colorado, a father was arrested for playing softball with his daughter in an empty park.
  • In Kentucky, there have been at least four instances of people being forced to wear GPS ankle monitors because they left their houses after being in contact with people with COVID-19. Governor Andy Beshear set up a hotline for complaints about “non-compliance with coronavirus mandates.”
  • In Hawaii, police set up checkpoints to enforce stay-at-home compliance, issuing 70 citations and making 2 arrests. In that state, violation of the rules is punishable for up to a year in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo instituted a maximum $1,000 fine for people who violate social distancing rules.
  • In Greenville, Mississippi, churchgoers were each fined $500 for participating in a drive-through Easter service.
  • In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot shut down the city’s parks and lakefront and banned people from spending long periods of time outdoors. “You cannot go on long bike rides,” she lectured. “Outside is for a brief respite, not for 5Ks.” Police Superintendent Charlie Beck further lectured, “The public health order is not an advisory. It is a mandate.If you violate it, you are subject to a fine of $500. If you continue to violate it, you will be subject to arrest.”
  • In Dallas, police officers were given the authority to stop anyone walking around “to make sure they are essential workers and not people just out and about.”
  • In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo announced that she would be sending members of the National Guard door to door to search for people from New York and to force them into quarantine. She also criticized her state’s own residents for being less “compliant” than those in nearby states and lectured them to “do better.” “I have ordered a stay-at-home order for all of the people of Rhode Island,” she lectured during one of her press briefings. “That means stay in your house.” Of people who dare to go to the grocery store when they want to, Raimondo said, “That’s not right, that’s not fair, and you’re going to hurt a lot of people.” Also, three people from Massachusetts were recently arrested for golfing in Rhode Island after the owner of the McDonalds where they parked reported this “crime” to police.
  • Boston Mayor Marty Walsh ordered all the city’s athletic fields, basketball courts, and sports facilities closed, threatened to close down city parks entirely, and recommended a curfew between the hours of 9:00 and 6:00 (though fortunately it does not have the force of law). “We have been seeing too many unnecessary trips in the evenings and social distancing problems as people order and wait for their takeout at restaurants,” he lectured on Twitter. “This stay-at-home advisory will help us plan our days, make good choices, and avoid crowded situations.” He also encouraged people to call 311 to report people congregating in parks. “People are continuing to gather, and we simply need to take that option away,” he said. On a similar note, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered parking lots near state parks and beaches to be closed to deter people from using them. “If people can’t play by the rules, if it’s too big a temptation, then we’re just going to get rid of the parking,” he said.
  • In my own neighborhood, when I went for a walk around the pond, a cop was parked there in his car and bellowed through his megaphone, “No congregating near the pond!” Subsequently, the neighborhood park, tennis courts, and basketball courts were roped off with police tape.
  • In one of the few exceptions to this disturbing authoritarian trend, the mayor of Cumming, Georgia rescinded his city’s social distancing order. “While the intent of the order was to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19, it is obvious that a large portion of our public doesn’t want government mandating the recommendations of public health officials,” he said.
Amerige Park, Malden, MA
Amerige Park in Malden, MA is currently closed.

Anyone who cares about the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution should be dismayed. Any policy forbidding people from gathering or attending religious services is in blatant violation of the First Amendment. “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,” it says. There are no exceptions for pandemics in the First Amendment, nor any language specifying that its provisions only apply in times of safety.

Also under assault is the Second Amendment. Despite President Trump’s advice to the contrary, many states have deemed gun stores non-essential businesses and ordered them to close. But as Gun Owners of America correctly noted, “the Second Amendment cannot simply be put on hold because of COVID-19.” Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva took violating the Second Amendment to another level. Not content merely to label gun stores as non-essential, he justified their closure by pointing to the alleged danger posed: “Now you have the mixture of people that are not formerly gun owners and you have a lot more people at home and anytime you introduce a firearm in a home, from what I understand from CDC studies, it increases fourfold the chance that someone is gonna get shot.” As columnist Susan Shelley notes, the Second Amendment contains no exception for CDC studies. Just like with the First Amendment, it applies at all times, not merely when safety concerns allow. A collection of individuals, businesses, and gun rights organizations have filed a federal lawsuit against Villanueva, arguing “California’s state and local governments cannot simply suspend the constitution. Authorities may not, by decree or otherwise, enact and/or enforce a suspension or deprivation of constitutional liberties. And they certainly may not use a public health crisis as political cover to impose bans and restrictions on rights they do not like.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Department of Justice requested emergency powers from Congress, including the power to indefinitely detain people without trial. This would wipe out the right of habeas corpus. “Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government,” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “That is something that should not happen in a democracy.”

As Shelley writes, “We’ve lost freedom of assembly, the liberty to travel freely, the right to buy a firearm, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and now the courts are closed. We’d better end this emergency before the Bill of Rights is carried out on a gurney.” These satirical articles about the Constitution’s death from coronavirus and about all civil liberties being declared non-essential might be slight exaggerations, but not by much.

Around the world, things are equally disturbing, if not more so.

Columnist Anne Applebaum at the Atlantic summed up the situation:

“In some European countries, we are already watching that process unfold with a good deal of social consensus. Italy has gone into total lockdown. All shops and businesses are closed except those deemed essential; roadblocks are in place to prevent unnecessary travel; public parks and playgrounds are shut. Italian police already have fined tens of thousands of people for being outside without a valid reason. Since last Tuesday, Paris has been on a similarly stringent lockdown. You cannot leave home without filling out a form; 100,000 police officers have been assigned to make sure people don’t break the rules. On one day alone—Wednesday of last week—French police issued 4,000 fines for being outside for nonessential reasons. Harsh, yes—but people now accept these measures as necessary. The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, enjoys the support of seven out of 10 Italians at the moment, an extraordinary number in a country that historically distrusts its politicians. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has openly described the fight against the virus as a ‘war,’ and this tougher approach and language have won him a majority of national approval too.”

Hungary banned people from leaving their homes for any non-essential reasons and approved increased powers for the government with no end date. Israel enacted an emergency decree preventing Parliament from convening, imposing a round-the-clock curfew, and instructing security agency Shin Bet to secretly access people’s cell phone data to monitor monitor their movements, health, and quarantine compliance. Norway is punishing people with 15-day jail sentences and $2,000 fines for violating social distancing restrictions. Germany and Austria have banned people from meeting in groups larger than two. In Australia, police are encouraging people to report anyone who does not stay home for Easter and have been deploying helicopters and boats to track down, fine, and/or arrest “selfish” people for “doing the wrong thing.” In Serbia, soccer player Aleksandar Prijovic was sentenced to three months of home imprisonment for going to a hotel bar in violation of the country’s 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew. And Philippines President Rodrigo Duerte threatened his citizens that they would be shot dead if they violated his restrictions. “Instead of causing trouble,” he said, “I will bury you.”

In Asia, where the pandemic began but is now beginning to subside, governments subject citizens returning from abroad to horrendous privacy violations. In Singapore, returning citizens are required not only to quarantine but to share their phones’ location data with the government to prove their compliance. Similarly, in Hong Kong, returnees must be tested for COVID-19 and quarantine for 14 days while wearing tracking bracelets and having their movements monitored by a smartphone app. In South Korea, returnees must quarantine in a government facility. In China, they must quarantine in government-assigned hotels and report their temperatures to neighborhood committees via messaging app WeChat. In Taiwan, the government tracks people via their phones, sending police to people’s homes if they turn their phone off. A man there was fined a whopping $33,000 for going to a club.

It may not have quite reached a point where the last remaining shred of individual freedom has been eradicated from the earth… but it’s getting close.

“It’s hard to imagine more compelling circumstances to restrict someone’s fundamental rights than a deadly epidemic,” law professor Adam Winkler told Reuters in this article about the closures of abortion facilities and gun stores. Similarly, London mayor Sadiq Khan went so far as to say, “liberties and human rights need to be changed, curtailed, infringed – use whatever word you want.”

I could not disagree more strongly with these sentiments. There are no circumstances in which it is OK to restrict people’s fundamental rights. That’s why they’re called fundamental rights.

Equally disturbing is the lack of objection to, or even debate over, the authoritarian measures being taken by governments around the world. These measures have been “vigorously endorsed and defended – in some cases with considerable vehemence,” writes Jeff Jacoby at the Globe. “By and large, Americans have taken these restraints in stride.” Anne Applebaum echoes these sentiments in her Atlantic column, writing that lawmakers who resist authoritarian measures “should prepare to be accused of endangering their constituents’ lives.”

Indeed, most of the criticism that I have seen of government responses to COVID-19 alleges that the responses do not go far enough. For example, when the governor of Florida issued a stay-at-home order, instead of resistance, he faced criticism for not doing so sooner. “It is distressing that Governor Ron DeSantis waited until the coronavirus had spread to so many Floridians before finally issuing a statewide stay-at-home order,” said that state’s Democratic Party chair, Terrie Rizzo. There have been Facebook comments arguing that restaurants should not be allowed to even offer takeout, petitions calling for lockdown orders, petitions by doctors calling for stricter restrictions on people’s movements, and a petition by Cape Cod residents to close the bridges to keep out second-home owners (to his credit, Rep. Timothy Whelan said “To close the bridges would take a declaration of martial law. My goal has been to make it through my life without ever having to live under martial law.”)

In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, Michele Gelfand wrote that the U.S. should adopt “tighter” rules and cultural attitudes like those in countries such as China, Singapore, and Austria, where people are “used to a high degree of monitoring aimed at reinforcing good behavior.” She writes: “Countries with the strongest rules and strictest punishments are those with histories of famine, warfare, natural disasters, and, yes, pathogen outbreaks. These disaster-prone nations have learned the hard way over centuries: Tight rules and order save lives. Meanwhile, cultures that have faced few threats – such as the United States – have the luxury of remaining loose.” But freedom is not a luxury. It is a fundamental right. All governments should respect their citizens’ rights, regardless of the types of dangers each country has historically faced. Violating people’s rights might save lives, but that does not make it acceptable. What is the point of saving lives if everyone must live under totalitarian conditions with no quality of life and no freedom?

In a different opinion piece, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi urged the U.S. to enact authoritarian policies more quickly than Italy did to avoid the need for doctors to make difficult decisions about who to treat in case of the medical system being overwhelmed. “Everything should be done in order to avoid those ethically devastating choices,” he writes. “Our collective well-being makes our little individual wishes look a bit whimsical and small-minded… In the end, each of us is giving up our individual freedom in order to protect everybody, especially the sick and elderly. When everybody’s health is at stake, true freedom is to follow instructions.” This makes no sense. Everything should be done, no matter how badly it violates the rights of innocent people, so that doctors do not need to make difficult decisions? I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of the situation or the tragedy of lives being needlessly lost, but sometimes it happens that the demand for a resource exceeds the supply. It is the job of those in charge to come up with a fair system for distributing the resource. Why not first come, first served (something Ferraresi calls “not appropriate” without explaining why) or even a lottery system? Either of these alternatives would be preferable to taking away the freedoms of the entire population. There is nothing “whimsical” or “small-minded” about the moral principle of individual liberty. Giving up this principle for the sake of health and safety is not admirable. What is the point of being healthy and safe if you are not allowed to make your own decisions or live according to your own values and preferences?

People are encouraged to sacrifice their individual wants and needs for the greater good. Anyone who objects to this loss of freedom is called selfish and irresponsible. Surely, goes this way of thinking, people should be willing to endure temporary restrictions on their liberty if this will save lives. But rights are rights. It is not OK to violate them, ever, for any reason or for any length of time. It does not matter how many lives can be saved. Those who call for others’ rights to be curtailed so that they and their families will be safer are the ones who are truly selfish. Plus, although the coronavirus pandemic is temporary, the restrictions on our liberty may not be. Once the precedent has been set to take away rights in case of emergency, it will be that much easier for the government to take away these same rights in the future.

In Sweden, one of the only countries refraining from trampling on its citizens’ rights, the government’s policies are described as “weak” and “dangerous.” The Swedish government advises its citizens to wash their hands and to stay home if they are particularly vulnerable to the virus, but does not ban restaurant service or air travel and does not track citizens’ whereabouts or health information. A group of 2,300 doctors and scientists signed an open letter to the government calling for more authoritarian policies, complaining that “there is no scientific evidence for their strategy.” But they are completely missing the point. Respecting people’s rights to privacy and freedom of movement is a moral obligation. It has nothing to do with science. No amount of scientific evidence can make it acceptable to do something morally wrong. Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, an expert in microbial pathogenesis, asked, “If you put people’s lives at risk in a democratic society and then you do not help them, how will society trust politicians? I don’t want to live in a society that treats people like this.” But the government is not putting people’s lives at risk. The coronavirus is putting people’s lives at risk, and the government is merely refraining from trampling on people’s freedoms in an attempt to stop it. How can she not want to live in a society that treats people with respect and allows them to make their own decisions? That is the only type of society I would want to live in. The Swedish government is doing the right thing, and more governments should be following their example.

It would be difficult to put it better than Susan Shelley of the LA Daily News. “This is a question of freedom itself,” she writes. “If the government can declare an emergency without end based on perceived threat, and then override constitutional rights at the whim of an elected official, we are not living in a free country. The coronavirus isn’t the first ominous threat to human life that has confronted the nation. We’ve gone through two world wars, terrorist attacks and the threat of nuclear war, just to name a few. The Constitution is in force through all of it. No matter how scary the threat, the prospect of losing our freedom should be more terrifying by orders of magnitude.”