A pandemic such as Covid 19 does not actually threaten our political freedoms. Political freedom is often associated with liberty and autonomy and with having rights and the civil liberties with which to exercise them without undue interference by the state. Freedom is balanced by moral responsibility and, in the case of Covid, it is our moral responsibility to not kill others by, purposefully or negligently, spreading the virus. Those who gather outside state buildings in the US and those who protest about lock-down in Britain are short-sighted and irresponsible – they fail to acknowledge the moral responsibility associated with the freedoms they demand and believe they uphold.
Covid 19 is a killer that does not threaten to usurp the people, it seeks to shave thousands off the population. It therefore requires a different reaction to a threat from say aggressive extra-terrestrials or a Viking pillage. The legislation adopted to combat the virus and measures taken to protect the health service from collapse are, debatably, rendering more freedom on more of the population – who would otherwise be struck down by debilitating illness or have their lives terminated if such legislation and measures had not been adopted, temporarily.
Is Covid 19 a threat to liberty? That is a different question. Liberty is subjective while freedom is not. John Stuart Mill distinguished liberty from freedom in that freedom is primarily, if not exclusively, the ability to do as one wills and what one has the power to do; whereas liberty concerns the absence of arbitrary restraints and considers the rights of all involved. As such, the exercise of liberty is subject to capability and limited by the rights of others. Are we at liberty to assemble or freely associate? No. Are we at liberty to choose freely or to speak freely? Yes.
Covid 19 throws open to debate peacetime definitions of freedom and liberty but definers can still not escape the fact that they have moral responsibilities, which Covid 19 dramatically spotlights.
So what should happen to those planning to protest on the beaches of the South West of the country this weekend? The health worker Sam Warren is furious and sees protesters as direct threats to his health and the health of his co-workers on the front line. Those who congregate should all be arrested, Sam says, and they should be handed out fines.
Perhaps a lesson in political science might be more useful?
The protesters likely mean well and see themselves as defenders of liberty and hard-won freedoms but in fact Covid 19 is a prism through which the traditional world and the balance of freedoms turn on their head. The protesters are likely gullible souls turned by some short-cutting, like-seeking speaker on YouTube. While the protesters’ inability to manifest moral responsibilities wisely is tragic, a harsh lesson from the authorities simply plays into their hands.