Personal liberty is another, unsung victim of the pandemic

Riots over a Covid-19 curfew in the Netherlands. Violent protests against restrictions in Israel. The vaccine cavalry has arrived in the nick of time. The pandemic has strained democracy to its limits, and we need our freedoms fully restored when all of this is over.

The past 10 months have been truly dystopian, with parts of Europe under virtual house arrest. In some US states, armed protests and death threats against politicians seeking to save lives have been alarming. But, in the UK, I cannot help feeling a sense of unease at how readily much of society has accepted rolling restrictions, and how so many people have shouted down attempts to question the strategy.

In a crisis of this kind where so much is unknown, you may well need strong government action. But you also need open debate. I have supported drastic action to preserve the UK’s health service as being the lesser evil. But I think that we will look back on this period as an inspiring time when citizens made sacrifices for each other, and one which also set some worrying precedents.

The problem is most obvious in repressive regimes. Freedom House finds that 80 countries used Covid-19 as an excuse to censor critics or curb human rights. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute has signalled similar worries about democratic “backsliding” globally. Both organisations expect things to get worse in the years to come. You can see why. 

Hungary has engineered a coronavirus coup, and Russia has used a fake news law to silence critics under the pretence of curbing misinformation. Should those living in more robust democracies feel relaxed? Our situation is different. Well-meaning governments have generally cobbled together emergency responses by looking over their shoulders at each other than by any malign intent.

So why, then, do I feel queasy? When the UK home secretary declares she will make unnecessary foreign travel illegal, she looks as if she is enjoying herself too much. When parliament can only debate restrictions every six months, it is not holding the government to account.

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