Our Employee of the Month for April is government policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Epidemic diseases cause massive human distress and can kill millions across the world. Viruses and disease, in and of themselves, rarely if ever cause conflict or repression. But the policies enacted by states during epidemics—both to try to control disease transmission and for other ulterior purposes—can be a threat to peace, democracy and human rights. We are seeing this across the world today.
Many governments are using the Covid-19 pandemic to impose states of emergency, to enforce restrictions on civil liberties, to undertake comprehensive and intrusive surveillance, and to shape public narratives that insist on conformity and obedience. They may be doing this through honest belief that these measures will work and are better than the alternatives, from copy-catting other governments under the pressure of panicked publics, or because it’s a great opportunity for a power grab at the expense of citizens. Policy measures such as quarantine, travel restrictions, hygiene enforcement and tracking individual cases all have a long history of use in emergency public health, but have often been implemented with other goals in mind, including excluding or stigmatizing immigrants, clearing settlements of poor people on the basis that they are unsanitary, or simply extending the power of the state.
The use of arbitrary power to protect against epidemics is nothing new, and in most cases it is lawful. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees freedom of association in Article 22, but then grants states an exemption ‘in the interests of … the protection of public health or morals.’
Much is uncertain about Covid-19, what treatments will be available and when, the trajectories of the pandemic in different countries, when and how it will end, and how it will change the world. Some public figures are exploiting the uncertainties of medicine and epidemiology to sow confusion, making Covid-19 possibly the world’s first ‘post-truth’ pandemic. The vast scale of the health crisis is also making it possible to make serious proposals for previously fringe ideas—such as universal basic income, (in the U.S.) universal health care, and reform of incarceration policies.
Pandemics can be a crisis of democracy—or a moment at which people mobilize and empower themselves. Expert planners and political leaders may insist on centralized, military-style responses. Experience of epidemics shows that scientific expertise must be adapted to varied local social conditions if it is to work. Local knowledge and practice are just as important as quantitative data in overcoming an epidemic; not only must people trust science, but scientists must trust people too.
The award of ‘Employee of the Month’ to Covid-19 policy is also an invitation to a debate on the politics of the pandemic, especially on the question of how democracy and human rights are to be preserved in these disturbing times.
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