News2020.03.26 08:00

Losing liberty for coronavirus security – opinion

Robertas van Vorenas 2020.03.26 08:00

The harsh response to the coronavirus pandemic could challenge the already frail liberal democracies, writes Professor Robert van Voren, the director of the Andrei Sakharov Research Centre for Democratic Development at Vytautas Magnus University.

Baltics in-depth. LRT English presents a forum of expert voices from the region.

Our response to the coronavirus pandemic reminds of the Iraq war, writes Robert van Voren, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University – we come a little late, but then jump into it with full force and without an exit strategy.

The government in Lithuania has now imposed a mandatory quarantine for all returnees and has effectively placed the country in lockdown, despite having relative few cases and no scarcity of intensive care beds.

All over the globe, the governments are struggling to find an adequate balance between restrictions and freedom. Many are inclined to impose stricter measures to give the impression that they are in control, and therefore, show they‘re able to guarantee the safety of the population.

Some dictatorially inclined leaders make use of the situation – including in Hungary, Sri Lanka and Israel. In democratic states, the imposed rules also edge on the unconstitutional.

In Lithuania, quarantine violations become now punishable by law, and the parliament is even asked to adopt changes to the Criminal Code that would make transgressions a criminal offence.

The reaction of society is mostly one of silence. Under the heading of ‘anti-corona war‘, we are willing to accept a lot, even when measures are questionable and might amount to violations of basic human rights.

All around the globe people have been gripped by fear, fueled by social media. This is probably the big difference from the Hong Kong flu of 1968–1969, when around a million people died. Back then, there was no internet and no social media, and thus we were unable to create a mass reaction.

When I watch the corona news (are there any other?), I cannot avoid the feeling that we are watching the Iraq War unfold.

We go in a bit late because of indecisiveness and also because China, which is now being praised, initially downplayed the epidemic for a considerable time and persecuted those who rang the alarm bell. But when we do, we go in with massive force and firepower, against an invisible enemy, but without an exit strategy.

We impose what is basically martial law. Dissident voices are shut down by claiming that those who voice them don‘t care for the weak and the elderly, and are thus heartless. Meanwhile, we mess up our economy in a way that it will take years to recover.

No, I am not talking about money and I am not a ‘Trumpist’ who finds the pandemic just a bother. But, in order to maintain a healthcare system, we need at least a relatively healthy economy.

The avalanche of bankruptcies that we can see on the horizon will result in an avalanche of suicides, depression, divorces and related mental and physical illnesses, putting a huge strain on an already overwhelmed healthcare system.

And that exhausted health care system will not be able to care for the chronically ill in the same manner, resulting in even more deaths.

In the meantime, despite all the measures to create a false smokescreen of security, people will continue to die from the coronavirus, because no lockdown is ever going to end the virus’ existence.

In other words, we might have many more people dying in the long term, than those who succumbed to the coronavirus itself.

Politicians have responded with harsh measures, which in some cases, are a threat to the already frail and challenged liberal democracy. The panic is based on a simple fact – in our unending arrogance, we thought we had everything under control, including our basic instinct that we are afraid to die.

As a Dutch philosopher and general practitioner recently put it so nicely: “Life is about taking risks. Much of the richness in life stems from taking risks. For example, love. You take the risk to share your life with somebody, but you are not sure whether you will still love that same person five years from now.”

We will soon have European states in total lockdown, with no physical links of communication between them and very much reduced communication within the countries themselves.

While in surrounding countries, the virus will be uncontainable because the governments are incompetent and lie (for example, Russia). While in conflict areas such as Syria or in some African countries, the economic and social situation is so dire that the response measures will be a complete illusion.

Are we then going to live on our little islands where some politicians cannot resist the inner drive to become authoritarian rulers, such as in Hungary, and abandon the whole idea of a global world or a European Union?

Of course not. At least that is what I sincerely hope.

But what I don‘t know is how the governments will reopen the borders and jumpstart the global economy without soon having the same pandemic again, still without a vaccine and without a unified strategy. I have not heard one government coming up with a roadmap back to normality, even if only with a tentative date. The reason is simple: there is none.

In a few years from now, we will be looking back and discussing where things went wrong and how we managed to create such a massive crisis.

Maybe there was something wrong with our healthcare systems and they were too outdated to cope?

I sincerely hope we will then still be able to discuss these things, without being rubber-stamped as insensitive and egocentric traitors.

Professor Robert van Voren is the director of the Andrei Sakharov Research Centre for Democratic Development at Vytautas Magnus University. The centre focusing on issues of human and civil rights, and conducts research into the politics in Central and Eastern European countries. Andrei Sakharov was a critic of the Soviet regime, and eventually became the symbol of the struggle for fundamental human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.

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