Rights & Liberties in the Time of a Global Pandemic

April 29, 2020  Chrystie Swiney

  • Rights and Liberties
  • Blog

Since the novel coronavirus was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization on January 30th, the headlines have been replete with stories expressing concern over restrictions placed on fundamental rights and liberties. While some are concerned that certain nations are going too far, such as in Hungary, and others are concerned that they aren’t going far enough, such as in Sweden, many are increasingly concerned that the severe restrictions being placed on our individual and collective freedoms, though justified in the current moment, might not be lifted — or fully lifted — once the pandemic ends. Some are starting to look forward, beyond the current crisis gripping our communities and the world, and asking: what kind of world will we inhabit once the Covid-19 storm passes

Various watchdog organizations and human rights groups have begun monitoring the scope and spread of Corona-related legal measures, which in many cases grant sweeping emergency powers with little oversight, and in some cases no sunset provisions, to government actors.  The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, as one leading example, created the Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker to document government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, such as the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression. As another example, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance is tracking Covid’s impact on elections, which in many countries (though not all, see South Korea as a shining example) have been postponed or cancelled altogether. And the International Press Institute has created a tracker on press freedom violations, which (to date) documents the existence of 132 such violations since the coronavirus crisis began.

While most (though not all) agree that the restrictions currently being imposed are necessary for the sake of public health, a growing concern is whether such restrictions will be removed once the pandemic ends. Some of the laws being adopted, such as Hungary’s Law on Protection Against the Coronavirus, which grants President Orban the ability to indefinitely rule by decree with little to no congressional oversight and to imprison individuals for up to five years for spreading false or distorted facts, include no sunset provisions whatsoever. Other laws being adopted, such as the United Kingdom’s coronavirus law, which grants the British government “eye watering” new powers to arrest, detain, close borders, and restrict individuals’ movements, have sunset provisions that are years into the future. Other countries, such as Chile, South Africa, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Honduras, among others, seem to be using their temporary emergency powers to make lasting changes, such as suppressing dissent and placing restrictions on journalists.  

The renowned economist Robert Higgs, in Crisis and Leviathan from 1987, articulated the so-called ‘ratchet effect theory.’ This theory holds that during times of crisis, the size and scope of the government expands; however, after the crisis ends, its expanded powers never fully return to pre-crisis levels. The government, accustomed to its newfound authorities and equipped with new tools to implement those authorities, is reluctant to give them back. Like a mechanical ratchet, which can only go in one direction, the government will never get smaller, only larger. 

Higgs’ theory is foreboding during this time  – a time of dramatic ‘ratcheting up’ of governmental authorities.  While most would agree that desperate times require desperate measures, and that many of the restrictions during this time are entirely justified, we must remain vigilant that our rights and liberties, like so many of our friends and family members, do not become just another victim.