Freedom Is a Pandemic Casualty in Authoritarian Regimes and Liberal Democracies

Around the world, governments are taking advantage of COVID-19 to tighten the screws on their subjects.


It will be months, at least, before we have a full accounting of pandemic casualties. For now, though, you can confidently add to that list a healthy measure of human freedom. Around the world, governments are taking advantage of the public health emergency to tighten the screws on their subjects. That's true of the usual-suspect authoritarian regimes, but citizens of liberal democracies have also seen their liberty curtailed. And not only is it unclear how much they'll get back once the crisis passes, it's not obvious that everybody will even want to reclaim the freedom they've surrendered.

It's not surprising that regimes traditionally contemptuous of the give and take of an open society see in the spread of COVID-19 a new opportunity for punishing dissidents and extending their power.

"The Thai authorities are prosecuting social media users who criticize the government and monarchy in a systematic campaign to crush dissent which is being exacerbated by new COVID-19 restrictions," Amnesty International reports. "Authorities have wasted no time using existing repressive laws in order to censor 'false' communications related to COVID-19," the organization adds.

Thailand isn't alone.

"Cambodian authorities are using the Covid-19 pandemic to carry out arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters and government critics," according to Human Rights Watch. "The authorities have arrested at least 30 people, including 12 linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), on charges of spreading 'fake news' and other offenses since the global outbreak of the pandemic."

You could say that arresting political opponents for criticizing public health efforts has gone viral.

"Across the globe, illiberal leaders—facing questions about their preparedness to deal with a pandemic that has killed nearly 45,000 people, at a time when too few states appear to be equipped for the challenge—see fake news bans as convenient tools to suppress criticism and accurate information just as readily as misinformation," Foreign Policy acknowledged a month ago, before the death toll climbed to its current level.

Despite controversial social media efforts to tag and sometimes yank (allegedly) misleading information, the pandemic hasn't been widely used in democratic countries to stifle political speech—yet.

Then again, as governments around the globe use the force of law to close businesses, restrict travel, and confine people to their homes—by the beginning of April, half of all humans were under lockdown orders of varying severity—aiming barbs at political leaders may be one of the few liberties that remain intact in many traditionally free-ish countries.

"If somebody wants to stay in the house that's great," Tesla chief Elon Musk complained in an April 29 conference call. "But to say that they cannot leave their house and they will be arrested if they do… this is fascist."

Musk is one of the more high-profile figures to push back against lockdown orders. But protests have erupted against restrictions across the United States, Canada, Germany, and elsewhere. In France they turned violent in reaction to harsh police enforcement tactics.

Some leaders are doubling down. California's Governor Gavin Newsom indicated that he would close all beaches and state parks to deter people from congregating under the open sky. Almost simultaneously, a Michigan judge refused to uphold a constitutional challenge to Michigan's bizarre and draconian (if recently softened) pandemic restrictions. That last bit of news should be little surprise since U.S. courts generally abandon anything resembling a protective role toward constitutionally protected rights during health crises.

"Historically, the courts have been very deferential to the executive branch in times of pandemics," constitutional expert Josh Blackman of the South Texas College of Law told The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "People always go to the courts. They tell the courts, 'We're not having our rights respected. We're having our rights violated. Do something!' And in almost every case, the courts say, 'Ehhh… Not for us … We're going to sit on the outside and look in.' And that's really been the story of the law in the time of epidemics."

Why do they fold so easily? Judges are people like anybody else, and they're as prone to panic and to abandon principles at the mention of "disease" as the rest of us. With a majority of Americans supportive of lockdown orders, and even of requiring people to postpone "non-essential" medical care, judges protecting individual liberty would be swimming against the current of public opinion.

Enough Americans are sufficiently frightened of becoming sick that many have taken to snitching on neighbors who they suspect of stepping beyond the bounds of pandemic rules.

"Covid-19-induced terror has hijacked the nation," worries Dr. Joseph A. Ladapo, an associate professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. "The battle against Covid-19 is gradually morphing into a battle over civil liberties," he wrote in an April 29 Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Ladapo is concerned not just by restrictive stay-at-home orders but also about what's to come, as efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus become a regular part of our lives.

"Testing may be mandatory," Ladapo warns. "Contact tracing may mean government tracking of cellphone data. How much privacy are individuals willing to forfeit for a virus that increasingly appears to pose little danger to a large percentage of the U.S. population?" He worries that, as in Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere, new intrusions into people's lives will be "more about the exercise of power than about public health."

The American Civil Liberties Union also worries about "plans to use location data from our cellphones to address the pandemic in ways that would not be effective and would impinge on rights." Likewise, Human Rights Watch warns that "for authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power."

That power, once consolidated, will be hard to take away. And the freedom that power is used to crush—of speech, movement, business, privacy, and day-to-day activity—will be extremely difficult to reclaim.

Freedom will be that much harder to reclaim if many people don't want it back. The subjects of already-authoritarian governments won't be asked their opinions on the subject, but the citizens of countries that were relatively free have themselves to blame if they meekly surrender what they once enjoyed.