Lockdowns And Freedom: At Odds Or Different Sides Of The Same Coin?
These are trying times. Like many other New Zealanders, I am impacted by lockdown. Yet I am aware that the effects of Covid-19 infection and lockdowns are spread unevenly across the population.
The human rights of all people during a Covid-19 outbreak and lockdowns need to be considered.This is where things get complicated. This rights - based focus is often at odds with the libertarian view of freedom from government intervention.
Those people who are anti-lockdown often feel that their rights to freedom are being breached. What many people seem to be forgetting is that with rights comes responsibilities. Many people are breaking the rules by gathering in groups indoors and spreading the virus even further.
While we have individual rights, we also need to remember that there is a responsibility to society to protect other people's rights.
Those people who are unable to be vaccinated against Covid-19 are at risk from other people. These include children and people with compromised immune systems.
The issues are complex and entangled. And yet too many people are looking at them from a one-dimensional perspective.
Anti-lockdown protestors are a case in point. They claim that lockdowns are a breach of our individual freedom and a form of tyranny. They refuse to look at the other important dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it has on people who are especially vulnerable.
In my opinion the anti-lockdown protestors hold a naïve and limited view of freedom, one that puts people at further risk of Covid-19 which is highly infectious and variable. While some people are not affected much by Covid-19, others may be harmed for a long time (long Covid).
Lockdowns can protect people who are vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus such as older adults, unvaccinated children, and those with pre-existing health conditions.
Covid-19 affects people throughout the community unevenly even outside of the aforementioned vulnerabilities. For example, poor living arrangements and financial instability, disability, and homelessness can also worsen the risk of Covid-19 infection for people. Refugees and immigrants are another group of people who are at greater risk of social disadvantage from Covid-19.
These same people are also disproportionately affected by Covid-19 lockdowns. These lockdowns can increase financial instability and people may lose their jobs as businesses shut down. Access to social goods such as health services and education might also be impacted.
This then has further consequences for mental health.
So it seems that we may be stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
However, rather than resist lockdowns I think we should be focusing on lobbying the government for greater rights for these groups during the pandemic.
It is not surprising that in times such as these with heightened tensions there may be a lack of social cohesion.
In the United States, England, Australia, and New Zealand anti-lockdown protests have threatened social stability. Some of these protests have been violent.
In Melbourne for example, thousands of angry protestors marched through the CBD shouting “freedom” and “f*** the jab”. Protestors threw glass bottles and flares at police. The riot police fought back with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The protest was organised by Harrison McLean, a Melbourne Monash University graduate who is a self-identified libertarian activist and proponent of individual and economic freedom. He is also a Covid-19 denier.
The knee-jerk reaction of protestors who want to protect their elite lifestyles in the West is problematic.
There appears to be some degree of naivety over the concept of ‘freedom’ by the protestors. The idea of freedom that these protestors are raising is based on a libertarian notion of freedom as the enjoyment of one’s own life and goods.
The libertarian definition of freedom is dominant in Europe and American countries. Scholars Zhou Zhifa and Tan Xiaohan from Zhejiang Normal University recently published a research paper claiming that this understanding of freedom has led to problems in Covid-19 governance in Western countries.
Zhia and Xiaohan said that protestors end up endangering public security and health through traveling, gathering, and demonstrating without masks during a pandemic.
A recent anti-lockdown protest in New Zealand during lockdown is a case in point. It had the potential to become a ‘super spreader’ event and potentially plunge New Zealand into an even longer lockdown.
The anti-lockdown protest in New Zealand was a ‘peaceful protest’. However, I don’t believe that anti - lockdown protests are in the same realm of a peaceful protest. Peaceful protests are a cornerstone of democracy. Peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are perfectly legitimate and healthy ways to try and achieve social change.
Just not in the middle of a pandemic. This is when their legitimacy needs to be questioned.
Mahatma Gandhi is considered the ‘father of peaceful protest’. He fought for civil rights in India and he resisted British colonization. For his troubles he was arrested thirteen times during his lifetime.
Gandhi showed the world that social change can be achieved without violence. He was an inspirational leader in human rights. He triggered other civil rights movements led by activists such as Martin Luther King jr, Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafzai, and Nelson Mandela.
But anti- lockdown protests are not in the same ballpark. Instead of protecting people and fighting for the human rights of people from oppressed groups, they put these same people at risk.
The fallout of a Covid-19 outbreak on hospitals in New Zealand and elsewhere is extreme.
The concept of freedom held by civil rights revolutionaries such as Gandhi and Mandela and that held by anti-lockdown protestors are irreconcilable in the context of a Covid-19 pandemic.
Civil rights freedoms protect people from discrimination by gender, race of disability. A libertarian view of freedom on the other hand champions the freedom to make choices about your own life, your body, and your property. This is why many anti-lockdowners are also against the jab.
Some clarity around the concept of freedom will be helpful during these troubled times.
Lockdowns are not based on the repression of freedoms in service to a tyrannical need for power and control. Rather they are an attempt to protect our way of life in New Zealand, which actually has considerable freedoms compared to many parts of the world.