This fragile thing called freedom
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 virus is turning the world upside down and governments everywhere are searching for ways to contain the infection rate. Everyone is being asked to do their part in halting this scourge. Many, if not all, of the measures being taken are designed to protect everyone in this stressful time and, for the most part, we understand that they are necessary.
At the same time, however, the responses of governments to COVID-19 are an object lesson in how fragile are the freedoms we take for granted, how fleeting this thing called democracy can be.
Let me be quite clear about one thing: no one would disagree that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions. But having said that, the current situation illustrates just how easily – and how fast – governments can seize unprecedented power over the people and enforce that power without opposition.
Since COVID-19 hit us, various levels of government have responded with what started out as fairly benign moves to stop the spread: school closures, for instance, or asking travellers returning from foreign climes to self-isolate. But over a short period of time, those responses have begun to take on a Draconian tinge. Now, more and more governments are talking about using police powers to make everyone conform to “the new normal.” In Quebec, a woman was arrested recently for being outside while under a quarantine order. Prime Minister Trudeau may be contemplating bringing into force the Emergency Act, which would give the federal government sweeping powers that override even the provinces.
All of which might be necessary, but once a government has exercised such power, it is difficult to give up that power. It’s simply human nature. For example, just last week, Mayor Dave Barton posted on social media that he felt people using the pump park were not practicing social distancing, and if they didn’t, he would close or disable the park. Having issued the warning, I wonder if it was perhaps too much of a temptation to flex his muscles, and he closed down the park, along with every park, playground and outdoor facility in the township. As one writer put it: “The great weakness of power is its incapacity to limit itself. When power marches forward, its last step invariably justifies the next step.”
There have even been rumblings in some quarters about using police to enforce the social distancing rule. In the U.K., in the current crisis, police have been given the power to arrest anyone suspected of having COVID-19.
Many of you are probably nodding your heads and saying it’s okay with you because all these measures are being taken “for the public good.” But replace COVID-19 with some other type of emergency where the government will tell you they are acting “for the public good.” Your freedom to associate with others, to travel, to work can be impacted just as easily. In fact, whatever so-called freedoms we have can be taken away in a moment by a government. If a government decides to declare an emergency, the public has no right or power to disagree, even in a democracy which elected said government.
One thing I’ve noticed is that no government so far has frozen prices to prevent gouging. Nor does much seem to be done to go after the scam artists who are playing on people’s fears to promote phony cures. Last week, while watching a video on YouTube, I saw a pop-up ad which said: “Coronavirus warning: Uxbridge. Take these crucial steps to prepare.” Believing it was something put out by the township, I clicked on the ad only to find it was someone trying to sell me something. Turning the police on these bottom feeders would perhaps be better than having police go out with tape measures to make sure we’re all six feet apart.
And, as I have noted before, many of those issuing daily updates are seen standing at a podium surrounded by colleagues while they address a crowd of reporters. It often appears to be a case of “do what I say, not what I do.”
One last thought: just how long will this social distancing and staying at home last? Estimates from some quarters say it could be weeks or even months. It seems to me that over time, a lot of people are going to reach the point where they’ve had enough. What then? Riots, civil disobedience, social breakdown? If that happens, watch for the police to be deployed “for the good of the people.” Remember the G7 police response in Toronto.
Tell me, am I wrong?
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