It’s a Fine Line: Individual Freedom vs Expert Advice Amidst Covid-19

Photo Credits: Jonathan McHugh 2021

By Haris Rashid

THE measures taken by the governments across the world, to tackle the spread of Covid infection, has once again renewed the old debate- whether the public should be allowed to choose for themselves or should the expert opinion prevail? In a democracy, the public has the right to express diverse points of view on the issues that concern them and they expect their elected representatives to properly represent their views. Therefore, public sentiment, as such, is one input to political decisions-whether it is to make the masks and the vaccination mandatory or whether to impose a lockdown. On the other hand, one could argue that decisions such as these are best taken by the experts based on evidence, and not subject to, say, a referendum or mass opinion. But what happens if the public feels a certain way but experts disagree, what view should win out? The pandemic further complicates the problem because it is a matter of life and death and because of the nature of the virus, it does not only concern a particular person but it concerns the whole community. One person choosing not to wear a mask or refusing to follow social distancing or choosing against getting vaccinated does not only endanger their own lives but the lives of all those around them. So, it raises the question of how we should navigate such complicated issues.

People are usually skeptical of their governments. US President Ronald Reagan once infamously quipped, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” According to the selectorate theory, the primary goal of a leader (the government) is to remain in power. All the decisions (political, social or economic) made by the government are taken while taking into consideration the primary goal of prolonging its own survival. Hence, the possibility of governments using illegitimate political power disguised as expertise is very high.

When China decided to lockdown Wuhan in January 2020, Western media, especially the US-based media, highlighting its democratic credentials, carried reports and news items that raised concerns over the lockdown and suggested that it amounted to human rights abuses. On January 22, 2020, The New York Times published a report that said “By limiting the movements of millions of people in an attempt to protect public health, China is engaging in a balancing act with a long and complicated history fraught with social, political and ethical concerns.” It further quoted an expert who said, “the shutdown would almost certainly lead to human rights violations and would be patently unconstitutional in the United States.” The Washington Post carried a news item on January 26, 2020, titled “China’s coronavirus lockdown-brought to you by authoritarianism” which said, “Only the Chinese government could implement draconian measures to such a large scale.” However, the US later copied the China model to contain the spread of the disease. The Wall Street Journal published a news story on March 24, 2020, saying “U. S. and European leaders are looking at China’s progress in curbing the coronavirus pandemic to guide them on how to beat the virus within their own borders.” Further, according to Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker’s COVID-19: Stringency Index, which measures the Covid containment measures of countries on a scale of 100, China’s measures were harshest at 81.94 while the US had its harshest measures at 75.46. Not much difference.

After the Covid positive cases and the number of resulting deaths surged in Italy in early March 2020, their government decided to lock down the country. Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, best known for his work on the concepts of state of exception, vehemently attacked these stringent containment measures imposed by the government. In an opinion piece published in Quodlibet, Agamben wrote that the measures once again manifested the government’s “tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm.” He further wrote, “It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.” There are many cases across the world where Agamben’s words ring true. In India, the long-running Shaheen Bagh protest site was cleared on the pretext of curbing the spread of Coronavirus. Similarly, in Kashmir, the government used Covid restrictions to stop returning militants’ bodies to their families. It all started in Sopore where a JeM militant’s body was returned to his family on April 9, 2020. A few hundred people participated in the funeral, following which an FIR was lodged against unknown persons who participated in the funeral of the militant for violating the Covid-19 protocols. Since then no militants’ bodies have been returned to their family.

It is true that such “states of exception” can be used by the governments to target their opponents and crush dissent but does that mean that the government must not have any right to impose any kind of restrictions, even if it is a matter of life or death. When the whole world was months into wearing masks, President of the United States Donald Trump refused to wear a mask and refused to introduce a nationwide mandate that would make wearing masks mandatory because he wanted people to have “a certain freedom.” Despite the world’s top public health experts in the US repeatedly recommending wearing masks based on evidence, the issue deeply divided the country with the political debate going on for months. Many lives would have been saved if the government and the public had heeded the experts. Incidentally, today (on July 18, 2021) China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted a rhetorical question to the US, “How about the rights of 600,000+ Americans who died in the pandemic?” Unfortunately, it is too late to ascertain the opinion of all those people who died in the US on whether they would have temporarily preferred the “bare life” while sacrificing the normal social, political and economic conditions or would they have preferred “a certain freedom” even if it led to their death.

Some governments like China, with their good intentions of saving people’s lives, can be criticized and accused of human rights abuses for locking down the country without involving the public’s opinion in decision-making while other countries like the US can get away by putting the same measures in place but after months of debate and huge loss of life. Further, it is a fact that there would always be some governments who would use illegitimate political power disguised as expertise to consolidate their power in order to prolong their survival. Keeping in view all these facts, is it really necessary to include public opinion in decision-making, on issues like a pandemic-which is a matter of life and death- or should the government just heed the experts? Since the pandemic is receding and the focus is now on vaccination, it becomes more interesting. Most of the countries have made vaccination mandatory for international travel and colleges and universities across the world are making vaccination mandatory for their students. But there is still a substantial proportion of the population that is vaccine-hesitant. Should the governments take their concerns into consideration or should they heed the experts?

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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