Be wary of normalising extraordinary Covid measures

Governments have been granted significant power over our private lives

We must not sleepwalk into normalising a massive expansion of government power in the post-pandemic world. Photograph: iStock

We must not sleepwalk into normalising a massive expansion of government power in the post-pandemic world. Photograph: iStock

 

The emphasis on personal action during the pandemic changed what many of us consider to be our responsibility for protecting the health of those around us. Most people had the pre-pandemic experience of going into work or getting on public transport while being under the weather. Such behaviour did not attract significant social opprobrium, and most of us did so without wondering whether we might end up hospitalising a vulnerable person in the process.

The pandemic has reshaped these norms of personal responsibility for public health. Now we have been conditioned to be more aware of our personal responsibility to others, and of how small adjustments in behaviour, for example in hand hygiene and cough etiquette, can protect those around us. This has changed the expectation we have of ourselves and others, and has made us more conscious about how we interact with vulnerable members of the population, such as when visiting nursing homes or entering shared spaces such as public transport.

At a societal level, the pandemic has changed what we expect and permit our government to do in order to protect public health. Controls on how businesses can operate, on what activities individuals can engage in, and even on the free movement of citizens in their own country became acceptable as a means of protecting the health of the population.

This required unprecedented steps in criminalising certain behaviours and in collecting data on citizens. Intrusions into our private lives that would have seemed preposterous before the pandemic have, over the past 18 months, become normal parts of everyday life. We have allowed our governments much more latitude in exercising power to meet their responsibility of protecting the health of ourselves and our fellow citizens.

These two changes in how we view responsibility for public health – a more expansive view of personal responsibility and a more permissive view of government responsibility – represent, respectively, a decentralisation and a centralisation of power over public health. A focus on personal action decentralises power: it is the individual, acting responsibly, who has the power to protect the community. A focus on government responsibility centralises power, normalising a broader array of acceptable government actions.

Coming out of the pandemic, we have a choice about whether to reinforce the centralisation or the decentralisation of power over public health. We can promote decentralised power through policies which reinforce norms around personal responsibility. This can include traditional policy tools, for instance by guaranteeing better workplace protection for employees taking sick time, including preventing the penalisation of gig economy workers and those on zero-hour contracts for taking sick leave. This would help to reinforce the norm that individuals not interact with others, especially vulnerable populations, when they are sick.

We could also, however, reinforce the centralisation of power over public health. We now know how effective mask mandates, travel restrictions and controls on indoor gatherings can be in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. A precautionary attitude about the possible emergence of new strains of coronavirus could provide grounds for prolonging some of these measures indefinitely. Annual resurgences of coronavirus and influenza could be contained through seasonal “pandemic-lite” restrictions, for example on travel or indoor gatherings.

The scenario in which emergency measures introduced during the pandemic become a normal part of life has historical precedent. Consider, for instance, how many of the “extraordinary” measures expanding state power introduced in the wake of 9/11 were normalised. The securitisation of air travel, along with the massive expansion of government surveillance in the United States, became accepted as permanent aspects of modern life. Just as the collection of data on citizens for “counter-terrorism” purposes became the norm post-9/11, it is quite possible that a similar normalisation of pandemic measures such as bulk collection of citizens’ health data may occur today.

We must, however, be wary of letting the extraordinary become ordinary. To allow the encroachments by governments that we accepted during the pandemic to become permanent should be deeply concerning to any citizen who cares about maintaining a life private from their government. Emergencies may call for emergency measures, but we should not be quick to abandon long-standing conventions limiting centralised government control and monitoring of our personal lives.

How we view both our own responsibilities and those of government will guide public health policy in the post-pandemic world. A greater awareness of our personal responsibility to protect the health of others is a rare positive to come out of the last 18 months. As public health policy evolves post-pandemic, we should support this decentralisation of power and responsibility for protecting our fellow citizens. We should be more concerned about the normalisation of more centralised government control in the service of public health. We should at least decide to maintain any such policies with open eyes, rather than sleepwalk into normalising a massive expansion of government power.

Conor McGlynn is a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC

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