How should a liberal democracy handle the coronavirus crisis?

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The pandemic disease covid-19 forces us to consider fundamental questions about the nature of society and the state. Questions we usually ignore. How do your freedoms and obligations relate to mine, and to those of other citizens?

I start from the position of a classical European liberal who believes that I am free to live my life as I wish, provided I do not harm others. I have no right to impose obligations upon you, unless I am willing to accept reciprocal obligations.

Furthermore, those obligations which members of society collectively impose upon each other should be kept to the bare minimum. The reason is that, in practice, most societal obligations are imposed without achieving unanimous consent. This means limiting the freedom of those who did not want them.

Most of my political views are logical consequences of these principles. For example, my desire to abolish the legal prohibition of assisted dying; my life is mine to end when I will. Even under present law, I am free to refuse medical treatment.

Nevertheless covid-19 has some tough consequences which liberal minded people may initially recoil from.

You may not care if you get infected with the virus SARS-COV-2, and whether that leads to illness or death from covid-19. However, are the rest of us then expected to care for you in your illness? Even more importantly, unless you can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of society, in your infected state you may pass the virus on to others.

These consequences mean that even a liberal society cannot permit you to avoid taking precautions against infection. That is why it is acceptable for a liberal society to impose mandatory vaccination upon all its citizens, with an exemption only for those who would suffer medical harm from the vaccination due to their specific biological issues. That applies to all infectious diseases, including of course covid-19 once a vaccine becomes available.

The measures that our society takes to protect its members from covid-19 must of course be decided by the Government. It alone has authority to take collective decisions on behalf of society, because citizens have delegated that authority to it through the electoral process.

Nothing that the Government has done so far should give a classical liberal any qualms. It is perfectly reasonable for society to close activities which are not essential (as judged by Government on our behalf) to minimise the risk of infection, while providing appropriate compensation from an Exchequer which represents our society’s collective funds.

At present testing capacity is wholly inadequate. Once sufficient capacity becomes available, the Government has the right to require people to be tested (even if they are unwilling) because the rest of us have the right to know whether people who might mingle with us are contagious.

One area much discussed in the media is contact tracing.

If have the virus, society has the right to ask me who I have met in the last N days (where N depends on how long asymptomatic people might be contagious) so that they can be tracked down and checked, since that may save their lives, and may also stop them further infecting others. I have no moral right to withhold the identity of the people I have met in the last N days, thereby putting their lives at risk.

The practical problem is that people’s memories are unreliable. Accordingly, several foreign countries have used smartphone apps. The design of such apps varies between countries, in part depending on the level of personal freedom such countries enjoy.

In my view the right of individuals to privacy, and the right of individuals to know whether they might have been infected with the virus, can be balanced by designing an app which properly balances civil liberties and the need to stop the virus spreading.

The outline below is based on reading what other countries have done. It focuses on the policy issues, rather than the technical aspects. I think it, or an adaptation, would be feasible.

  • The app must automatically be downloaded and installed on each smartphone. I see no moral right of citizens to refuse such an app, and I would cause smartphones to be inoperable unless the app is installed.
  • If the phone was within a specified distance of another smartphone, for a specified period of time such as 30 minutes, both smartphones would record that they had experienced proximity, storing the ID of the other smartphone. This storage should be encrypted within the app, and there is no reason to make it accessible to anyone.
  • The information should be retained by the phones for N days.
  • If a person is tested positive for the virus, they should be required, in the presence of a health worker or other state representative, to unlock their phone, open the app, and press a control to change their status to “Infected.” Refusal to do so should be a criminal offence.
  • Once the person’s phone’s app status was changed to “Infected”, it would automatically send a message over the internet to all phones whose proximity within the last N days was held by the phone’s app.
  • Once the ill person recovered from covid-19, the state could reset his phone app so that the status would no longer be “Infected.”
  • The receiving phones would have their app status changed to “Potentially infected” to encourage their owners to seek testing.
  • That “Potentially infected” status would remain until the testing had taken place after which the state could reset it. This design feature would allow the state to see if a person had failed to seek testing when they should, which I would also criminalise if it became known. Phones could alert the state if a “Potentially affected” person failed to seek testing within say Y days, where Y would be relatively short.

The above design preserves privacy, since the state never learns which people have been in close proximity to each other, while at the same time ensuring that my behavior does not deny you the right to be tested if I prove to have the virus. It would also ensure that if you need testing, you cannot opt out of being tested.

Mohammed Amin is a former Conservative Party member and is now a Liberal Democrat. He writes in a personal capacity.

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