I keep hearing people saying “it’s strange times we’re in”, while catching up with friends I really should have spoken to a long time ago. Normally, life gets in the way; not much of that happening now. I keep telling myself that this is necessary, these rules are for the greater good, but I still feel a pain whenever I cannot do what I want. Our lives are on pause and I find myself wanting to bend the rules a little. I want to flaunt the little freedom we have left.
Then I consider the consequences my actions could have on others. We all need to limit our exposure to others for this viral pandemic to be controlled. But many are not. The news is full of reports of infractions, some minor, some less so, of people fighting back against control in their own little ways.
The logic of social distancing and self-quarantine seems pretty sound. If the virus cannot spread to a new host, then the pandemic stops. We all return to our lives post-COVID-19. If we could stop this pandemic so quickly then why is it so hard for our society to sacrifice our social freedom?
Benjamin Franklin once said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”, a famously misrepresented quote that entered everyday conversations when privacy laws were changed after the September 11 terrorists attacks. These changes have made many feel that the government can peer far too much into our own private affairs. Whether or not you believe these laws are justified most likely depends on if you trust those in power pulling the strings. Where do you sit on the fence? Do our governments and health authorities have our best interests in mind? Or, are they being overly cautious?
Different levels of control are being enforced over the world. It depends on the government’s approach and perceived public risk. Some leaders are clearly overstepping their mark. As of today (31/03/20) with the European media expressing concerns over the “state of danger” changes in Hungarian law that will give Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, complete power, without indication that those powers are temporary or linked to controlling COVID-19 Is this just the first step down a slippery slope?
The UK, isn’t so draconian just yet, although some may disagree. The unrest, in my opinion, comes down to mixed messages, both from those in power and from other sources (social media sites, fake news, etc.). These warnings are being watered down and if people do not perceive the risks as valid or they see other people being treated differently. The mentality of “just this once won’t hurt”, is pervasive, the risk is small after all. But, when we magnify all these tiny risks to include the entire population, then the virus spreads like wildfire. The government has a fine line to walk, take away too much and be perceived as a tyrant, leave too many grey areas and run the risk of people pushing back. It should also be noted that such rules are much easier to follow for those who have greater means, private gardens and large house to ride out social distancing, if you are not lucky enough to have access to such, well what can you do?
We also have already come through many hardships and reached the other side; most of us have lived through the direct impacts of terrorist attacks and financial crashes, the existential worries of climate change, and some of us have survived one (rare) or two world wars, and now we all face a new uncertainty. Social freedoms are being taken away, with little reassurance of when these restrictions might be lifted. There is no doubt that there will be an end to this chaos, but what next? Superbugs and viral mutations mean that this is not a one-off, these diseases may become routine. Will humanity learn from this outbreak to prevent the next one? Or, do we just need to make social distancing part of our everyday life? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, what can we do? I think that we need to mend eroded trust in institutions, either in experts or those in power, but safeguards need to remain. We are living through extraordinary times, but Who watches the watchmen? We need to ensure that we remain vigilant with ourselves, our peers and those in power, trust is earnt and shouldn’t be taken for granted.