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Civil Liberties in a Pandemic

Despite differences across countries, most people are willing to give up some civil liberties in cases where doing so seems necessary to overcome a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. But while such pragmatism should be welcomed, it also points to the need for stronger safeguards against democratic erosion.

CAMBRIDGE – The implicit social contract underpinning democratic governments everywhere aims to ensure both the well-being of citizens and respect for their civil liberties, which include freedom of expression, assembly, and worship, as well as procedural fairness. These liberties are so fundamental to the functioning of modern democracies that political philosophers sometimes consider them to be “sacred values” that should not be subjected to comparisons or trade-offs.

Nonetheless, major crises – from wars and terrorist attacks to natural disasters and pandemics – can bring civil liberties into conflict with the broader commitment to the well-being of citizens, particularly when it comes to safety and security. Such moments of tension tend to shed light on the otherwise obscure dickering implicit in the social contract, because temporarily curtailing certain civil liberties is often a crucial component of the policy response to major crises. This is the case with COVID-19. Technological fixes are still few, and the public-health measures involve, at a minimum, restrictions on movement, assembly, and – in some instances – media content.

Is there a reason to worry that the pandemic will serve as a pretext for the erosion of rights in the long run? According to some outlets, there is. The think tank and watchdog organization Freedom House found that since the start of the pandemic, “the condition of democracy and human rights has worsened in 80 countries, with particularly sharp deterioration in struggling democracies and highly repressive states.” According to The Economist, governments have understandably assumed emergency powers to deal with the crisis, but have also sometimes abused them by selectively banning protests, scapegoating minorities, and perhaps taking advantage of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on issues other than human rights. A recent open letter in defense of democracy from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance called for keeping democracy alive amid COVID-19.