Despite the unfolding global crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-lockdown protests have occurred across several countries in recent weeks, with the most prominent being those in the United States. Whilst at first these protests may seem comical, they are also extremely dangerous.
The science is clear - social distancing is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Yet in the face of the most significant global crisis in at least 100 years, these protesters are choosing to put not only their own safety at risk, but also that of their families, friends and coworkers.
So why are these protesters rejecting the advice of medical experts and putting lives at risk? Certainly, the decline in trust in politicians and experts has a role to play, as does unemployment and economic hardship. But the defence of civil liberties, also known as civil and political rights, has also been a central theme of protestors. One protestor in Detroit, Michigan emphasised that America is “not supposed to be the safest place on earth but it is supposed to be the freest.”
In a way, they’re right. The COVID-19 pandemic represents one of the greatest ever threats to civil and political rights globally. Citizens of every country have seen their freedoms decline – from authoritarian states where such rights were already limited or non-existent, to robust democracies where civil rights are the cornerstone of constitutions and national identities. Things that we normally take for granted, such as leaving our house, catching up with friends in public, and enjoying our privacy, have been limited in a COVID-19 world.
The recent protests simply highlight the delicate balance governments must find between strong public health measures and the protection of civil and political rights. Looking forward, Israeli Professor Yuval Noah Harari states that we must confront the fact that “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.”
Undoubtedly, the current restrictions placed on the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, and privacy are justified. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states that certain rights can be restricted in the interests of national security or public safety.
However, the risk that governments keep certain measures in place, like the tracking of citizens’ movements or the use of facial recognition technology, represents a genuine concern for all countries. In places where techno-authoritarianism is already the norm, the COVID-19 pandemic simply presents a new opportunity for governments to refine and expand surveillance of the population. In these countries, civil and political rights are under serious threat as a result of the pandemic.
Even in countries where civil liberties are core to national identities, such as the United States, there are significant risks to civil and political rights. The phenomenon of “mission creep” may make it easier for governments to restrict civil rights in future crises, or to collect citizens’ location and health data in unforeseen ways. It would be a tragedy for the global human rights movement if the COVID-19 pandemic served as a pretext for the normalisation of mass surveillance across the world.
Perhaps then, there is something to be learned from the sporadic protests occurring across numerous continents. Protesters are right to point out that civil and political rights have been hard-fought-for. Even the briefest of glances at a history book will tell you that.
Governments everywhere must, as the immediate health crisis begins to ease, be held accountable for the current restrictions on civil and political rights. Prominent NGO Privacy International is right to demand that any policy restricting civil and political rights, anywhere, must be “temporary, necessary, and proportionate.” However, expressing such sentiments on the streets amidst a public health crisis places lives at risk, and is selfish behaviour.
It is undeniable that COVID-19 has led to unprecedented restrictions on civil and political rights for people across the world and on every continent. Rather than mark a prolonged decline in these rights, let us hope that an engaged citizenry can use their voice to uphold hard-fought-for rights. By mobilising in creative ways, and having nuanced discussions about the interplay between public health and civil rights, I hope that this crisis will remind us of the importance of human rights, and the plight of those who are unable to enjoy them.
Darcy French is studying a dual master’s degree, completing a Master of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po in France, and a Master of International Law at Peking University in Beijing, China.