What is the future of liberty in the age of a continuous pandemic?
Last week, President Biden announced that he would require all federal workers to be vaccinated, in order to get back to work, in a latest attempt to pump up the vaccination rates, as the country is falling back, reporting as many as 150,000 cases a day. With little over half the country fully vaccinated, there has been a rise in COVID cases worldwide, as the summer allowed governments and people alike to relax and act as if the global pandemic was over.
However, a year and a half after the onset of the health crisis a concerning questions is still looming over liberal, free and democratic states – until when can the pandemic work as a justification for the limitation of individual rights?
In order to illustrate this argument, I will use two recent examples that have surfaced on the public sphere and have raised concerns about the legitimacy of how liberal governments interact and communicate with their public, all in the context of a democratic dynamic.
Firstly, it is the case of President Biden’s emergency temporary standard, effectively mandating that all federal workers must be vaccinated. The measure applies to more than four million federal employees and workers on government contracts.
In addition, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will issue a rule using emergency authority in the coming weeks to require employers with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or get tested weekly. That would have an impact on some 80 million private sector workers, states a Reuters news report.
An additional statement of OSHA stated that the new Emergency Temporary Standard will also “apply to public sector state and local government workers, including educators and school staff, in the 26 states and two territories with a state OSHA plan”.
In the aftermath of the press release, President Biden’s decision received, quite expectedly, a considerable backlash especially from Republican lawmakers. The critical views that have surfaced since this decision was announced is endemic to a broader culture war and a deepening sense of polarisation that has been fuelled further by the pandemic.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster says he will fight “to the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian.” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, says she is preparing a lawsuit. And J.D. Vance, a conservative running for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, is calling on businesses to ignore mandates he describes as Washington’s “attempt to bully and coerce citizens”. “Only mass civil disobedience will save us from Joe Biden’s naked authoritarianism”, Vance says, in a news report from ABC 7 Chicago.
This push to try to get close to 80 million Americans, who are either working, are government contractors or are in some way professionally related to federal institutions has enraged even Republicans who were promoting vaccinations, citing the move as unconstitutional. The pandemic is worsening in many states, with the country reporting close to 1500 deaths per day due to the Delta variant.
However, what this bold push to bolster vaccination could actually do is erode and chip away at the hard-earned progress and the trust building that has gone into this massive effort of immunisation. Let’s not forget – this vaccination effort is not only based on “hard power” structures, such as infrastructure, manpower and production, but it is just as much, and even more based on pertinent communication, access to information and, most importantly, building trust.
The second example is that of Australia. The country, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest democracies and freest societies, has had an unusually stringent approach, since the onset of the pandemic.
“Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption”, states an Australian government website.
Throughout the pandemic, Australia has imposed some draconian, almost Orwellian-like limitations to individual rights and freedom of movement in the name of public health. The government of South Australia, one of the country’s six states, developed and is now testing an app world to enforce its quarantine rules.
“Returning travellers quarantining at home will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person. “We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,” Premier Steven Marshall explained.
“I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app”, states The Atlantic in a concerning article over Australia’s liberal future.
But how much can states curtail the liberty of their citizens in the name of safety?
John Lee, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, states that while the COVID-19 pandemic health emergency difficult decisions had to be made to prevent infection and protect the community while limiting negative impacts to the economy and civil society at the same time, “there is immense public ignorance as to the respective roles of the federal and state governments”.
He continues, declaring that “more troubling is the mindset by some state governments that legislation and actions to suspend civil and even some human rights of citizens so as to respond to the health emergency can be applied arbitrarily and must be accepted uncritically, promptly, and without the need for scrutiny as to the reasoning or implementation of such emergency measures”.
With the unpredictable prospects of COVID-19 for the future, the public has been already accustomed and now, could arguably be more relaxed, when democratic states chose to temporarily curtail their rights for the purposed of a greater good. The fact that this level of acceptance has been raised is a concerning development, in the context of constant unknown, as the pandemic is expected to last indefinitely.
Two different examples, with the same result: an increasing involvement of the state apparatus into citizens’ immediate livelihood and decision-making process. Whereas, citizens are rightfully allowed to trust the record of democratic government and states, when it comes to their own liberties, when do we actually draw the line and say: this is too much?
After all, disruptions and fines at protests against quarantine and social distancing measures in democracies have been a hotly debated topic. What will follow?
Photo source: Reuters