Could lockdowns trigger an ongoing loss of personal freedom around the world?
25 June 2020
Opinion: Professors Tim Dare and Paul Rishworth and Dr Jiamou Liu have their say on whether the Covid-19 lockdowns could be a portent for freedom restrictions in the future.
Professor Tim Dare: Co-operation has been crucial
We should not underestimate the importance of co-operation: coercion is an expensive and ineffective way of securing compliance with the law.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen an extraordinary abrogation of civil liberties that would have been unthinkable in the past. Should we fear that they foreshadow an ongoing loss of personal freedom and other basic liberties?
I suspect not. It is important to note how much the government, in New Zealand at least, relied upon the co-operation of citizens. We should not underestimate the importance of that co-operation: coercion is an expensive and ineffective way of securing compliance with the law. Had a significant proportion of New Zealanders declined to co-operate – forcing the police to prosecute – the lockdown would not have been sustainable. The curtailment of our liberties was achieved because almost all of us thought their curtailment reasonable.
For the future, then, it seems unlikely that the most dramatic curtailments of personal liberty will continue. They required our co-operation, and once the pandemic has passed, continuation of that co-operation seems unlikely – perhaps unthinkable. Note, too, that personal freedom exercised within the broad parameters set by most liberal democracies is an asset. Its curtailment has been enormously expensive. It made sense only given clear and equally enormous countervailing costs. We shan’t need to demand the return of most of them: they’ll be pressed upon us.
What about others? Many governments will use tracking technology to trace those who have been near confirmed Covid cases. (Manual alternatives, note, are not only ineffective, but also may be more intrusive.) Governments should favour versions that require the co-operation of users. There is a cost to doing so – it makes it hard to guarantee enough people will use the technology – but it preserves the sense that ‘we are all in this together’, and, again, that co-operation matters. In any event, governments must guarantee that such technology has a use-by date: once the extraordinary justification goes, so must applications of the technology.
I think there is a bright side. Rarely have we seen the current level of co-operation between citizens and government. As we came through this threat and regained our liberties, perhaps we recognised that they were only one valuable thing among many.
What if we could harness the same level of trust and readiness to temporarily put aside self-interest – even risk our most cherished liberties – to target other threats such as climate change and child maltreatment, that we have hitherto thought unconquerable?
Professor Tim Dare teaches philosophy and legal ethics in the Faculty of Arts.
Professor Paul Rishworth QC: The default setting is freedom
It is very unusual for law to reach so far into our lives. We don't legislate against smoking in private or poor food choices, still less about our house guests.
When the virus arrived, people around the world were asked, and many ordered, by their governments to sacrifice some of their liberty to prevent its spread. In New Zealand, even the freedom to exercise was constrained by legal rules including one that precluded swimming and fishing for safety reasons, yet allowed cycling.
It is very unusual for law to reach so far into our lives. We do not, for example, legislate against smoking in private or poor food choices, still less about our house guests. We are free to decide what is good for ourselves. But we accepted unusual constraints (including living in ‘bubbles’) in the face of a great peril.
That acceptance was, for most, accompanied by a healthy scepticism. Constraint, yes, but only for so long as it is supported by evidence. Our admiration for effective leadership has been very closely connected to our reverence for public health expertise (and experts). Kiwis like getting the job done, and we’re prepared to play our part for the common good.
That is a healthy intuition. It’s reflected also in the international human rights instruments and our own Bill of Rights. These recognise that restraints on most freedoms can be justified for pressing reasons such as ‘public health’, so long as restraint is proportionate to need. This, we might say, is evidence-based law. The default setting is freedom – of movement, association, assembly, religion and expression.
So, what will happen when the virus leaves us? Other existential threats have not seized our attention in quite the way Covid-19 has during these strange days of 2020. It is a considerable irony that a microscopic virus proved so adept at bringing the world to near standstill, allowing us time to see the sky and hear the birds.
There is now talk of a ‘post-virus world’, a time of recalibration. Obviously there will be competing visions about how we deal with threats such as climate change, and which measures are best indicated by the best evidence.
But the need to accommodate ourselves to the realities of our planet is not a limit on our freedoms. Rather, it is a necessity if freedom is to flourish.
Professor Paul Rishworth QC is a former Dean of Law who specialises in human rights law.
Dr Jiamou Liu: Improved resilience
As well as triggering the largest online teaching practice in human history, lockdowns around the world have facilitated the adoption of novel Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data-driven technologies, which have demonstrated revolutionary potential for the future.
While industrial giants such as Apple and Google have experimented with Bluetooth for contact tracing, China relied on big-data analytics to predict crowd movement out of Wuhan before the lockdown started. Hospitals in Shanghai used robots to disinfect their indoor areas and machine vision to diagnose Covid-19 from CT scans, at an accuracy comparable to human experts. Alibaba, the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company, has applied virtual chatbots to answer Covid-related questions from the public and managed 90 percent of user queries in parts of China. There are numerous other cases where AI and robotic technologies have helped in item delivery, temperature taking and crowd simulation.
The world’s largest 5G network rolled out at the end of 2019 and has not only enabled millions to watch the hospital constructions in Wuhan in real time, but also has provided countless medical workers the power to conduct their diagnoses through virtual/augmented reality. Thanks to such technological advancements, our way of life has never been so resilient and this unprecedented period will surely impact the world long after the pandemic is over.
Unity and co-operation are still in great need, but real danger does loom as certain politicians – outside New Zealand – point fingers at each other while manipulating public attention.
On a personal note, I have enjoyed, somewhat to my surprise, much freedom, as a portion of life moved from the physical world to the virtual. The endless traffic during my daily commute, back-to-back meetings, and the constant interruptions from phone calls, emails and drop-ins that kept me from getting work done all seem to be memories from a distant past.
The weekly Zoom meetings with my students have gone smoothly. The online platform where I interact with a class of 120-plus students in Chongqing, as part of a bilateral teaching collaboration, allows me to track their engagement with my (recorded) classes, something impossible in the past.
Unity and co-operation are still in great need, but real danger does loom as certain politicians – outside New Zealand – point fingers at each other while manipulating public attention, withdrawing from international co-operation, and fuelling public fear and anger. A dark cold-war rhetoric threatens to divide the world and shatter the very foundation of our freedom and a resilient human future.
Dr Jiamou Liu is a senior lecturer in computer science.
This article first appeared as a Taking Issue column in the Winter 2020 edition of Ingenio magazine.