When it comes to insanely restrictive (and, arguably, ineffective) pandemic measures, critics tend to point the finger at public officials and their appetite for power. But government functionaries may be no more of a danger to post-COVID freedom than some of our neighbors. Recent polling suggests that many among us not only approve of the lockdowns of the past year and foresee public health restrictions continuing into the indefinite future, but they also want the world to remain constrained by efforts to prevent illness—or maybe just constrained, and never mind the reason.
"Public willingness to sacrifice for the common good in a time of crisis has surprised ministers," The Economist noted last week. "But the pandemic has also revealed John Bull's authoritarian streak." The magazine went on to report on the results of polling conducted along with Ipsos MORI that found a surprising degree of support among Britons not just for the lockdowns of the past year, but for maintaining restrictions sold as efforts to head off the spread of COVID-19.
"Polling by Ipsos MORI for The Economist suggests two-thirds think masks, social distancing and travel restrictions should continue for another month. A majority would support them until covid-19 is controlled worldwide, which may take years. Even more strikingly, a sizeable minority would like personal freedoms to be restricted permanently. A quarter say nightclubs and casinos should never reopen; almost two in ten would support an indefinite ban on leaving home after 10pm 'without good reason'," the report added.
Did that say "restricted permanently"? Yes, it did. Full results at the polling firm's website reveal 19 percent support for a permanent 10pm curfew. Significant minorities favor other permanent restrictions, including: keeping nightclubs and casinos closed forever (26 percent); enforced social distancing in theaters, pubs and sports grounds (34 percent); mandatory 10-day quarantines for people returning from foreign countries (35 percent); mandatory tracking-app check-ins when entering pubs and restaurants (36 percent); mandatory masks in shops and on public transportation (40 percent); foreign travel allowed only with proof of vaccination (46 percent).
Ipsos emphasizes that support for permanent restrictions is in the minority, although majorities favor keeping some controls in place "until COVID-19 is under control worldwide." But it's such a surprisingly large minority that The Economist portrays the data as evidence that liberty-loving England is a myth.
It's easy to scoff at the polling results from across the Atlantic—especially so soon after July 4th festivities. We knew there was a reason the founders wanted American independence, right? But a portion of the U.S. population shares a similar taste for public health restrictions.
"A plurality of voters say their area should start to roll back coronavirus restrictions when at least 75 percent of the local population is vaccinated," a Hill-HarrisX poll found in March. "14 percent said restrictions should be kept in place 'indefinitely.'"
When you get more specific about "restrictions" support for them seems to increase.
"A growing number of Americans want to get the coronavirus vaccine, and a majority also support workplace, lifestyle and travel restrictions for those not inoculated against COVID-19," a Reuters/Ipsos poll found the same month. The poll found majority support for barring the unvaccinated from airplanes (63 percent), public schools (59 percent), gyms (54 percent), theaters (56 percent), and offices where they're employed (56 percent). All of this even though the vaccines against COVID-19 are remarkably effective at shielding those who take them against illness, no matter the status of people around them.
Admittedly, that was several months ago, before everybody who wanted a COVID-19 vaccine had an opportunity to get jabbed; fears may have calmed since then. But more recent surveys showing a continuing expectation of, and taste for, restrictions.
"Stay at home orders" issued over the past year in response to the pandemic "were necessary to protect public health," agreed 62 percent of respondents to a June poll by East Carolina University's Center for Survey Research even after a year of closure orders, resulting economic devastation and social strife, and hypocritical violations of their own rules by politicians. By contrast, only a quarter of respondents said the orders "wrongly took away people's personal freedom."
Similar majorities favored face-covering mandates (65.1 percent) and quarantine requirements (67.9 percent) imposed in many states over the past year—but also said that wasn't enough. COVID-19 "was a problem and not enough was done early on to stop it from getting worse," agreed 62.6 percent of those polled. A dissenting 28.5 percent believed "it was a problem, but governments overreacted."
Looking forward, healthy people should "stay home as much as possible to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus" say 35 percent of those polled in June by Gallup. A depressingly high 40 percent say that life will "never get back to normal."
Overall, despite high-profile protests and criticism by public health experts concerned that more harm than good was done by draconian limits on human life that "had no detectable health benefits" in the words of University of Chicago researchers, many Americans, like their counterparts in the U.K., approve of the lockdowns and mandates of the past year. Given their support for those policies, it's likely they'd approve of similar responses to public health challenges in the future. And some people see no reason to wait for new problems—they want the world to be less free going forward than it was pre-COVID-19.
The Economist suggests the pandemic may only be an excuse for those who already wanted a reason to constrain their neighbors.
"Many Britons did not go out dancing or drinking, or take overseas holidays, even before the pandemic," the magazine's writers point out. "Nightclubs, casinos and dark streets harbour all sorts of wrongdoers. For some, it seems, endless lockdown is an acceptable price for everyone else staying home."
We already know that many people in our fractured world disapprove of hobbies, businesses, and lifestyles enjoyed by others and would like to see them disappear. The virus, then, may just be an opportunity for those who want to rein in freedoms they find frightening. They happily applaud restrictions on liberty not because they're necessary for public health, but because they restrict.
Fortunately, those eager to permanently constrain our lives constitute a minority. But when added to the ranks of those who approved such public health measures before and seem inclined to support them again given half a reason, freedom looks all-too insecure in the post-COVID-19 world.