ASSESSING THE RESPONSE OF GOVERNMENTS TO COVID-19 AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS ON CIVIL LIBERTIES
WRITTEN BY TEMITOPE ALO
In less than 4 months, the coronavirus has moved from a market in Wuhan, China to almost every country in the world. It was on Tuesday, 31 December 2019 that the Chinese government (a communist authoritarian government) announced the detection of a “pneumonia of an unknown cause” in Wuhan.
Over the next 4 months, the world would come close to a halt. Governments across the world have instituted emergency measures ranging from shutting down businesses, closing of schools, confinement of citizens to their homes – these that under normal circumstances would have been considered as threats to civil liberties.
Though, there has been expansions in government’s powers, governments have differed in measures of containing the COVID-19 pandemic. While some governments have instituted measures in containing the pandemic with commitment to protecting civil liberties specifically New Zealand, Iceland and Norway, some have gone the other way round stifling liberties, subduing the press, quashing protests and dissent.
New Zealand has pursued a policy of eliminating the COVID-19 virus through strict lockdown measures coupled with a robust economic relief package. And since, the government has been able to bring down the number of cases to a single digit. Iceland policy of testing as many as possible without a lockdown have worked well for the country.
Asian countries most especially South Korea, Singapore and the self-ruled Taiwan have invented models that ultimately makes intrusions into their citizen’s data privacy. The South Korea government extensively utilized the use of smartphones location readings to trace the contact of individuals who have been positive and to enforce quarantine orders.
In a less invasive approach compared to the Asian countries model, Germany, Italy, and Austria, have authorized mobile carriers to help share their citizen’s data with health authorities.
More worrying are countries whose illiberal governments have exploited the pandemic to consolidate their power and quash dissent. An example is Hungary where the parliament has voted to give the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban the powers to indefinitely rule by decree. A dangerous precedent for civil liberties in the country.
In Africa, there has been increased rate of police brutality and citizens in enforcing the state imposed lockdown. In Nigeria, at least 18 people have been killed while trying to enforce the lockdown. In Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, there has been violence perpetrated by the security forces against the press.
Throughout history, government usually expands in time of crisis. The interventions necessary to contain a pandemic are best undertaken by the state because it’s able to mobilize the needed vast resources to contain a pandemic and prevent a possible economic collapse.
More so, with expanded powers, technology have been used in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of digital surveillance tools such as government mobile apps, CCTVs, robotics and drones can help manage the disease but this comes at the expense of individual’s privacy.
Usually, during and after crises or pandemics, governments usually overreach and most times are not willing to relinquish the grounds gained after the pandemic. History is full of lessons of government not relinquishing grounds even when a crisis is long gone. An example is the continued American post 9/11 surveillance of its citizens long after the 9/11 bombings.
In Russia, a country that has been lately hostile to civil liberties, the president Vladimir Putin has introduced the use of facial recognition technology to keep track of citizens. These same tools could be used for the wrong purposes later.
In assessing the response of government to the coronavirus pandemic, the implications on civil liberties dire. This does not bode well for civil liberties across the world. Indeed, the coronavirus situation is distressing but intrusions into individual’s privacy, prolonged expansive state emergency powers and restriction of civil liberties shouldn’t be worth sacrificing for.
The use of big data and digital surveillance by governments could be the new normal if citizens do not demand accountability from their governments.
It is important that citizens are well aware of these tendencies by their governments to stifle civil liberties. Democratic governments across the world must understand that civil liberties and effective public health responses are not mutually exclusive in the fight against the pandemic. Governments must commit themselves to the principles and values of their democratic state, most especially freedom of press, respect of human rights including privacy.
With a free flow of information, government and accountability and dialogue with citizens, democratic countries are well better placed to contain and ultimately eliminate the COVID-19 virus. New Zealand and Iceland and Norway are testaments that democratic countries can contain and eliminate the virus without sacrificing the citizen’s privacy. Any success over the pandemic at the expense of the citizen’s civil liberties will not be sustainable.
Written by Temitope Alo
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