A picture of Boris Johnson with a sign in front of him reading "No liberty, No equality, no fraternity"
Credit: Ciara McAlinden

Liberté, égalité, pandémie

By Ross McCool

Writer Ross McCool gets philosophical about Covid-19 and how it has affected our agency and freedom

Covid-19 has brought drastic change and calamity to the modern world. Within the United Kingdom, the public have not faced such curtails to personal freedom since the Second World War. From the introduction of the largest lockdown procedures that have seen the light of day, to the enforcement of masks and social distancing, our social interactions and lives appear dramatically different to those just two years ago. With the additional time that many have endured over the last 18 months, many have questioned restrictions, turning to philosophy (whether they are aware of this or not) to provide mental exercise, healthy curiosity, or a method of intellectual dissent. 

These questions hail from some of the biggest areas of philosophy, ranging from the political philosophy – to question how much power and authority governments should have and how these are used – to the philosophy of mind: considering how our mental states affect our decisions and sense of self. We all have freewill, or at least appear to possess this trait. This seems to be a simple facet of common sense: we have freedom within ourselves to consider our options and freely make a decision. We can choose which overpriced coffee shop to order from or which bar to hit up to celebrate that end of exam season relief, but we can also use that freedom to consider how we should govern our lives, and how we should live within a community.

“the public have not faced such curtails to personal freedom since the Second World War.”

Some have come to the conclusion that governments have overreached and unjustly infringed upon the individual’s autonomy when considering the current global pandemic. Whilst this may cause a knee-jerk and cringe-inducing reaction from some, it may still be worth considering this outlook. These arguments tend to present the view that governments have over-extended their power and influence on individuals. This reaction has typically appeared in discussions of Covid passports: a method to refuse access to travel, venues or events to people who are unwilling or unable to receive vaccination. Sections within society have raised concern that these could create systematic discrimination that is currently outlawed. The Scottish Human Rights Commission has stated their reluctance to support such measures, fearing the ethical and legal implications regarding the storage and availability of confidential patient medical history and further marginalisation of the homeless, refugees, and migrants within healthcare. Such retort has proven challenging for even the most fervent supporter of vaccine passports to subdue, with many believing that such measures would simply be Draconian and far from an example of Egalitarianism in practice. 

We may also question the haste of passing reactionary and emergency legislation. Whilst many of these proposed bills and laws have an expiry date, such as the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill passed by the Scottish Government in April, there is still clear fear and doubt within some that these responses will remain temporary. We only need to look back at the “War on Terror” where many individual rights were stripped or curtailed in the effort to combat domestic and foreign terrorism. From internet privacy to our rights when detained under arrest, our personal liberties and the world around us has drastically changed as a result. While it could be argued it’s an intellectual fallacy to assume what happened before may happen again, this does not cease the fear and apprehension felt by some for what is still to come. 

“From internet privacy to our rights when detained under arrest, our personal liberties and the world around us has drastically changed…”

On the other hand, many have turned their intellectual efforts to defending restrictions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, with this situation providing a real experiment for many philosophical ideas, such as John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle. A central tenet of Liberalism, Mill argued that we should be free to act without government intervention unless our actions cause harm to others. This idea provides the genesis of the conversational piece: “They aren’t hurting anyone, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to do it?” So for example, I am free to run until I collapse as I am causing no harm to anyone else. However, it could be argued that Mill would support Covid restrictions, as someone infected with the virus has the potential to pass on the harmful disease which can cause a great deal of suffering, harm and even death to others. Therefore, governments not only should introduce restrictions to stop the spread of Covid-19, but they must protect those under their governance. I believe that this is the most sensible option, allowing both personal freedom and protection from those that would harm us.        

Some may take the more traditional route and, understanding that we live in a democracy, emphasise that as we elect those that are currently in governance, we should be governed by this group of people during a crisis. I think that we forget how lucky we are to live in a democratic nation. We tend to not only neglect that others do not share this privilege, but also forget the struggles that those that came before endured to ensure universal suffrage and the installation of justice and democratic values. Whilst we are a long way from living in a utopia (and there are still long ways to go to create a more open and accepting society), we have come far. As we exercise our democratic right to vote, we must accept the responsibility to be governed, as long as the government respects our rights and is free from tyranny, a sentiment echoed by John Locke, another champion of Liberalism.

As lockdown measures are starting to lift in the United Kingdom, there has been a multitude of responses. These range from people continuing to follow government guidelines, those more reluctant to the easing of precautions, and those who plan to enjoy the latest easing of restrictions. For those continuing to follow guidelines, they will continue to wear masks and minimise unnecessary journeys, whilst those that plan to enjoy their regained freedom will throw caution to the wind, enjoying the return of clubbing, socialising, and many other liberties. Regardless of your outlook, the global pandemic has brought greater philosophical consideration to the general public. The ability to question how we live is the glue to a healthy society.


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