In January 2020, as information began to emerge regarding the novel coronavirus, many experts and public voices (at least those quoted in media articles at the time) appeared to be skeptical of China’s dictatorial response to the new respiratory illness.
One CTV headline assured Canadians, “Mass quarantines like in China won’t happen in Canada.” Dr. Peter Donnelly, then-President and CEO of Public Health Ontario, promised, “If a case comes here, and it is probably likely that we will have a case here, it will still be business as normal” (emphasis added).
In the UK, the Guardian published an editorial in February 2020 arguing that other nations should not imitate China’s approach, observing rightly that “International law is clear that during a time of public health emergency, any restrictions on human rights should be based on legality, necessity, proportionality and grounded in evidence. The international community should support all efforts to end this outbreak, but human rights should not be a casualty to the coronavirus crisis” (emphasis added). CNN chimed in with a similar argument, quoting a variety of experts who pointed out the myriad medical, social, and economic problems associated with mass quarantines.
It’s almost bewildering to look back on these comments after two years of heavy-handed government restrictions that have now culminated in the harshest, most authoritarian measure of all: Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in response to anti-mandate protests.
We can speculate on why our leaders chose to embrace communist China’s “bold approach” and “extreme tactics” to combat COVID-19. But in looking back, what’s even more stunning to see is how quickly, even ardently, millions of intelligent, thoughtful people came to accept the imposition of rules (and rhetoric) that were incompatible with a free society.
One explanation, of course, is fear. Another is that the lockdowns were introduced as a temporary measure in response to an alarming global emergency. Yet, even in those first “two weeks to flatten the curve,” the public health messaging paved the way for our current crisis, in which freedom has apparently become a dirty word.
When restrictions are promoted as morally, not just medically, necessary – “lockdown out of love for your grandmother” – then the opposite (living freely) must be callous, cruel, irresponsible. How could anyone be against something that is supposed to protect “the vulnerable”? What decent person wants to overwhelm our healthcare system? Even if the evidence shows that certain measures are not only ineffective and unethical but actually harmful, any criticism must fall in the camp of heartless bigotry: if compliance is virtuous, then dissent becomes vicious.
The no-longer obvious truth is that freedom is not antithetical to compassion or self-sacrifice. In fact, the opposite of freedom is not love, it’s slavery. And slavery of any sort is based on the hideous assumption that some people are less valuable – less deserving – less human – than others.
Freedom is both the cause and effect of a society that treats every single individual as equal in dignity and worth. It’s no accident that the UN Declaration of Human Rights begins by proclaiming that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Yes, it’s true that in a free society, individuals can be inconsiderate of others. They can flout recommendations, foolishly endanger their own health, and fall victim to conspiratorial misinformation. But that’s not the fault of freedom, it’s the fault of human nature. We cannot expect even the best of laws to redeem a fallen humanity. No doubt, secularists would dispute my faith-based assumptions here – but just looking at today’s headlines, it should be obvious that coercion and control will not bring us peace (never mind protection).
Instead, I would argue that oppressive government intervention – including mass surveillance and suppression of information – has led to the breakdown in civic trust that we see unfolding around us. The ramifications go much deeper than a viral infection.
In China, the government is apparently offering financial incentives to encourage people to “snitch” on anyone suspected of breaking COVID-19 restrictions. In free and democratic Canada, we’ve seen neighbours voluntarily reporting on neighbours, “ratting out” small businesses, stigmatizing the unvaccinated, and now, smearing protestors and seeking to destroy the lives of their supporters. Those divisions will be very difficult to repair.
Of course, the urge to tear others down is nothing new. But in a time of crisis, surely this is what our leaders should be combatting, not inciting. Canadians have the capacity to come together with incredible kindness and generosity in the midst of hardship, as shown in the aftermath of tragedies like the Fort Mac wildfires or the flooding in BC’s lower mainland.
Where has that spirit of altruism and unity gone? Perhaps it vanished with all the promises and procedures that were abandoned in March 2020.