Freedom during the COVID-19 crisis 

Fleur de Beaufort and Patrick van Schie consider the measures taken to combat the pandemic and how state intervention can be reigned back The world has been in the grip of the COVID-19 outbreak since early 2020. While initially, many aspects of the virus were still shrouded in uncertainty – with governments unable to make a sound assessment of its impact – by March, it had become clear that the world was facing a full-blown crisis. Intensive care units rapidly filled up with patients and the medical care sector was overloaded with cases. Citizens started stockpiling en masse, and on 11 March the WHO officially characterised the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. Governments had to hastily determine which measures they needed to take to mitigate the crisis. And as the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reminded the press, they had to base their decisions on a very limited understanding of what they were actually up against. ‘A veritable struggle,’ as Rutte put it, that led to ‘diabolical dilemmas’. Around the world, it quickly became clear that it would be necessary to restrict people’s freedom of movement in an effort to rein in the pandemic. At first, fear of the unknown virus and the mounting number of infections created widespread public support for all the emergency measures. However, in the period that followed, we also saw new scope for reflection and criticism. Particularly now that in many countries, what has become known as ‘the first wave’ seems to have abated – and the associated, nation-wide panic with it – the adopted containment measures are the subject of heated debate. And almost everywhere, we can see certain groups resisting any form of intervention whatsoever. Over the past months, different governments have also decided on radically different forms of ‘crisis management’. Some governments opted for a total lockdown, during which almost every civic freedom was initially restricted in some way and citizens found in breach of regulations could count on hefty fines. Schools and universities had to close their doors, working from home – wherever possible – became the standard, and citizens were generally expected to stay indoors as much as possible. Physical contact was kept to a bare minimum by government order, and in certain locations – nursing homes and care homes, for example – banned altogether. The only stores allowed to stay open were those selling essential products – supermarkets, for instance. Many countries in Southern Europe adopted a total lockdown, but in Asia too, governments didn’t hesitate to take the crisis as an opportunity to further strengthen their hold. Other countries, in contrast, adopted a far less rigorous response. In some cases, in any case initially, this was due to the government underestimating the gravity of the situation – as witnessed in the US and Brazil. In other cases – Sweden for example – the government consciously decided to let things run their course. While Sweden’s citizens were advised to work from home wherever possible and keep travel to a minimum, its schools, hospitality venues and shops remained open. The Scandinavian country only prohibited gatherings of over 50 people, and care homes were also closed to the public. During a press conference the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced that he trusted people to be responsible in their decisions. These were times, according to Löfven, when people not only needed to make sacrifices in their own interest but also for others’ sake. The Swedish government did not deem it necessary to legally enforce these sacrifices, pointing to people’s personal responsibility to do the right thing. In the meantime, the Dutch government had implemented what was known as an ‘intelligent lockdown’. While this encompassed a large number of measures – a number of which were also enforced via emergency ordinances – the country consciously wasn’t put into total lockdown. Shops, for example, remained open and people working in essential occupations were allowed to drop off their children at school or childcare – albeit in limited numbers. And citizens could still relax in the outdoors – provided they continued to socially distance. In the Netherlands too, the authorities appealed to citizens’ sense of personal responsibility, although in terms of enforcement they wielded a bigger stick than their colleagues in Sweden. Public support for the official COVID-19 policy tends to fluctuate according to the current crisis situation. In the Netherlands, for example, the government’s measures initially enjoyed widespread support – in early March, many people even felt that the government could be more incisive in its response. Were we doing enough to prevent the virus from spreading? Or should we follow the example of our neighbours to the south and adopt far stricter measures? As the country gradually brought the outbreak under control and the economic consequences of the intelligent lockdown came into sharper focus, public confidence in the government’s performance as crisis manager diminished. Reflecting on and criticising the government’s handling of the corona crisis, people frequently draw comparisons with other countries. Opponents of far-reaching government intervention consistently point to Sweden as an example of how it should be done, while the media keep close tabs on this country’s infection rate and death total. A big risk of looking abroad for answers is that in many ways it amounts to comparing apples and oranges. After all, taken by themselves the COVID-19 data only tell part of the story. Other factors that play a key role in this context are the state of healthcare in the country in question (available care and, above all, IC capacity), population density, national character, etc. Aspects like these make drawing a direct comparison very difficult. European liberals show a preference for the Swedish approach on ideological grounds. After all, citizens’ individual freedoms and personal responsibility are two core values for this movement. At the same time, liberals also acknowledge the ‘harm principle’ as articulated by John Stuart Mill. Over 150 years ago, the British philosopher worded this principle as follows in his work On Liberty: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. In line with this principle, Rutte reminded the public during a press conference that one individual’s freedom should not come at the expense of the other’s health. In the present COVID crisis, this seems to open the door for a possible total lockdown. After all, until we have developed a vaccine or effective treatment the potential risk of infection is such that people will continue to pose a threat to each other almost by definition. But is this actually the case? Since individual freedom is never entirely without risk, one could also make any number of other considerations. For those who attach strong importance to individual freedom, restricting said freedom is not a step taken lightly – even during a pandemic. After all, as far as the concrete risk of infection is concerned, citizens do not all threaten their neighbours to the same degree. A lot of people aren’t infected with the virus – meaning they don’t pose a threat to others. And among those who do contract it, quite a few don’t suffer serious symptoms. Moreover, greater freedom of movement for everyone does not preclude different considerations at the individual level. Anyone can decide for themselves whether they prefer to avoid large gatherings or physical contact with too many other people – or skip their annual holiday, for example. Members of the various high-risk groups in particular will probably make different decisions than eg. young people, who feel more or less immune to this threat. In organised societies, authorities are taking a variety of measures to minimise risks – health-related and otherwise – not least because of the impossibility of collectively bearing the possible consequences of inaction. It is vital to find the right balance in these endeavours. Considering the number of people killed or injured in traffic accidents every year, those seeking an entirely risk-free society would be best served by far-reaching, government-imposed restrictions on road traffic. Nevertheless, no one would deem such a proposal realistic. However, almost everyone accepts the legal requirement to wear a seat belt – a prescription that prevents numerous casualties – although this takes away the individual’s freedom to make this particular risk assessment. In other words, it needs to be consistently evaluated which measures aimed at minimising a risk can still be considered proportionate. An uncontrolled outbreak would put such pressure on the country’s IC capacity that liberals will also agree to some measure of government intervention. However, the eagerness with which certain governments are seizing more power at the expense of individual freedom is unacceptable to liberals. After all, in times of crisis, individual freedom and people’s individual responsibility remain as important as ever. In the fight against COVID-19, an array of measures that reduce risk could be considered – isolating infected people, for example, protecting vulnerable groups who agree to this step, a temporary ban on large-scale public events like festivals or unnecessary travel abroad – while better safeguarding citizens’ individual freedom. A freedom – and this we all understand – that will always entail some risk or other. At first glance, this careful navigating between one person’s individual freedom and risks to the other’s health seems a temporary phenomenon. As soon as an effective vaccine or antiviral drug has become widely available, these deliberations will no longer be necessary. We can return from the ‘new normal’ – as virologists and politicians have dubbed the current, rather inconvenient and unpleasant arrangements – to the one-and-only ‘real’ normal. At least, that’s what you’d expect… However, in the present public debate, quite a few people believe that we won’t be going back to the way things were – or shouldn’t. To start, there are those who believe that our behaviour will be structurally changed by our present forms of interaction. This ranges from the idea that we will no longer greet each other in the same way – no more shaking hands, let alone kissing – to changes to our travel behaviour. In this outlook, we will be taking far fewer flights than we used to, for instance, which – as an added bonus – contributes to our efforts to combat the ‘climate problem’. From a historical perspective it does not seem very likely that human interaction will be structurally changed by the present crisis. After all, after previous pandemics like the plague or (as recently as the 20th century) the Spanish flu, people didn’t keep more distance between them or seek each other out less often either. Human beings are highly social creatures who need to interact with others and who receive positive stimuli from these experiences. Indeed, we can see in the present crisis how difficult it is for people – even with the threat of the virus still looming large – to keep the requisite distance. And this past summer, we saw how masses of well-to-do Europeans took a holiday abroad, viewing this as an inalienable ‘right’ – crisis or no crisis. Think what we like of such behaviour, the fact remains that human nature is unlikely to be changed by temporary threats like the COVID crisis. What we could see happening is that working from home becomes a more common practice in occupations that allow for this. It will be necessary in that case to ensure that one still meets colleagues, clients, course participant and other work-related contacts face to face with some regularity. It has become clear from the numerous Zoom sessions held over the past few months that while digital communication tools can be handy, they are also somewhat restricted. We will still have to meet each other in person every now and then. But it doesn’t have to be every workday. Now that it has become clear that employees can do a lot of work from home, we no longer have to submit to the ‘daily grind’ of commuting to and from the office five days a week. In this case, a change of behaviour is quite plausible because daily commutes were already considered inconvenient, due to wasted time and annoying congestion, for example. From the very start of the COVID-19 crisis, there were also calls to grasp this pandemic as an opportunity to fundamentally change our way of life. For example, the outbreak was said to highlight the crisis that capitalism itself was going through. Or – under the motto ‘never waste a good crisis’ – it was seen as an opportunity to make thorough work of the ‘climate problem’. As was clear from the speed with which they were presented, these conclusions were hardly supported by a solid underlying analysis. Indeed, this call did not stem from a logical scientific inquiry into the issues at hand, but was made by a group of ‘true believers’ – be it in Socialism or in man’s need to pay obeisance to the ‘climate gods’ – who latched onto the pandemic as a way to politically capitalise on their ‘vindication’. Was the pandemic caused by capitalism? Well, it actually originated in the world’s foremost Communist dictatorship: the People’s Republic of China. And that particular system also made things worse by attempting to cover up the outbreak for several weeks, and punishing whistle-blowers rather than giving them a fair hearing. Is a Communist country like the PRC better able to combat the virus than a capitalist one? Well, in this respect, free China – Taiwan – has definitely outperformed its unfree counterpart on the mainland. Nor could one say that free countries with stronger government intervention have done a better job. In Europe, countries like Italy, France and Great Britain with a nationalised system of healthcare have done worse than countries with a more mixed system. This is not to suggest that there is a causal relationship as such, but simply that anyone who states that we will need to step up government involvement if we intend to weather the future will have to provide substantial evidence in support of this claim. For the moment, the opposite view seems to hold. Nevertheless, one of the few structural changes that have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be increased state intervention in our economy. Across the planet, governments have come to the aid of citizens and companies with support measures large and small. During major crises, governments need to offer temporary emergency aid. But at the same time, we have also seen how in the aftermath of the two major crises of the 20th century – the two world wars – it became next to impossible to once again dial back this extra state intervention. While this will be applauded by some – the Socialist faithful, for instance – we fear that once we have overcome this pandemic, our societies will be continue to groan for far too long under governments that believe they can ‘steer’ and stimulate our economy. One thing’s for sure: sooner or later, our citizens – as taxpayers – will be footing the bill for all the funds currently being doled out – seemingly free of charge. ABOUT THE AUTHORS Drs FD (Fleur) de Beaufort and PGC (Patrick) van Schie are respectively a member of staff and director at the Liberal think tank BM TeldersStichting
One thing’s for sure: sooner or later, our citizens – as taxpayers – will be footing the bill for all the funds currently being doled out – seemingly free of charge