When the political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson wrote about nations in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, he said that belonging to them was particularly felt at certain moments. Reading the daily newspaper for one; watching those 11 men representing your country on the football field another. If Anderson were alive today, he might add “getting a government text message” to the list. Last Tuesday people throughout the UK all shared in this experience. Following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement the night before that we must all stay in, with few exceptions, the nation’s phones pinged to the alert “New rules in force now: you must stay at home. More info and exemptions at gov.uk/coronavirus Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” It was a first. The government had never before used the UK’s mobile networks to send out a message on mass.
By “force” the message meant exactly that. Police now have the power to fine those who flout the new rules. Quickly videos have emerged of officers approaching people on the streets, such as one showing sunbathers in Shepherd’s Bush being told to leave, and photos of a 25-person strong karaoke party that was dispersed this weekend. Almost overnight we went from being a nation where most people could come and go as they pleased to one in which we can barely leave our front door.
State-of-emergency measures are necessary in a real crisis, which is where we land today. Hospital beds are filling up fast, the death toll is rising, the threat of contagion is real and high. Few would argue that something drastic didn’t need to be done. But that does not mean we should blindly accept all that is happening in the name of our health. Proportionality – whether the measures are a justified or over-reaching response to the current danger – and implication – how they could be used in other aspects – are questions we should and must ask.
The new rules of UK life have been enshrined in the Coronavirus Bill. The bill, a complex and lengthy affair, gives the government a lot of power. Take for example the rules that allow authorities to isolate or detain individuals who are judged to be a risk to containing the spread of Covid-19. What exactly does a risk mean? Would it be the journalist Kaka Touda Mamane Goni from Niger, who last week was arrested because he spoke of a hospital that had a coronavirus case and was quickly branded a threat to public order? Or how about Blaž Zgaga, a Slovenian journalist who contacted Index several weeks back to say he had been added to a list of those who have the disease (something he denies) and must be detained? This followed him calling up the government on their own coronavirus tactics. He’s currently terrified for his life.
It’s easy to dismiss these examples as ones that are happening elsewhere and not here, until one day we wake up and that’s no longer the case.
And while many of us might be far away from authoritarian nations like China, whose government is tracking people’s movements through a combination of monitoring people’s smartphones, utilising now ubiquitous video surveillance and insisting people report their current medical condition, it might only be a matter of time before we catch up.
Singapore, another country with a state that has a tight grip on its population, has already offered to make the app they’re currently using to track exposure to the virus available to developers worldwide. The offer is free but at what other costs? The Singaporean government has been working hard to allay privacy concerns and yet some linger. Will people invite this new technology in their lives? Amid the panic that coronavirus has created, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which such tools are imported, embraced and normalised. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harrari writes in the FT:
“A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.”
The coronavirus bill was meant to come with an expiry date, a “sunset clause” of two years, at which stage all former laws fall back into place. The sunset clause has since been removed, and instead in its place is a clause stating the legislation will be reviewed every six months. Politicians have also sought assurances that the measures will only apply to fighting the virus, to which they have been told yes they will only be used “when strictly necessary” and will remain in force only for as long as required. All positive and stuff we should welcome. And yet how often do politicians say one thing and do another? We must be watchful and hold them to their word.
This is particularly important with the clause that enables authorities to close down, cancel or restrict an event or venue if it poses a threat to public health, a clause that has bad implications for the ability to protest. Of course in the digital age there are many ways beyond going out on to the streets to make your voice heard. And even without the internet, we’ve seen several creative forms of protest from inside the home, such as the Brazilians who have shouted “get out” and bashed kitchenware at the window as a way to voice anger at President Jair Bolsonaro.
Marching on the streets in huge numbers is, however, amongst the most effective, hence its endurance. If in six months’ time the virus is under control and social distancing is no longer essential, this clause should at point-of-review be removed. And if it isn’t, we need to fight really hard until it is. Protest is one of the key foundations of a robust civil society. It’s not a right we want to see disappear.
The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
The coronavirus crisis passes Mill’s liberty test. It is causing harm to a great number of people. It’s therefore important to take it seriously and to provide the state with adequate powers to fight the pandemic, even if that means losing some of our freedoms in the here and now. At the same time we must make sure politicians do not use this moment to tighten their grip in ways that, as stated, are disproportionate and easily manipulated. And once this is all over we expect the bill to expire too, and any apps that might no longer be necessary. Our freedoms, so hard fought for, can be easily squandered. Let’s not lose liberties on top of lives.