The price of freedom in a COVID-19 worldTuesday, April 13, 2021
By Frank Solomon
There is a saying commonly attributed to late US President Thomas Jefferson that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. There is no period in our modern history when that becomes more relevant. I hope by now people begin to realise just how tenuous and precious a thing liberty and freedom of choice is, and all that is required to snatch it away is a scribble of a pen or a word by those in 'power'.
This pandemic has revealed to us just how easy it is for us to lose many hard-fought rights almost overnight — albeit for a unique and arguably justified reason in this instance. The real threat arises when leaders, noting that the previously unimaginable can now in fact be done, decide to subtly push the envelope to see just how much they might be able to get away with — all in the name of an emergency health crisis.
For instance, Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has already suffered and continues to do so in certain countries. Among its offerings are “the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State, and that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country”.
Even as I said previously that some moves may be justified in the current situation, citizens need to be wary of leaders using the existing situation to establish platforms that can lead to or make it easier for further erosion of rights or abuse of power down the road, and of those continuing to breach these established human rights without just cause.
In Grenada, a situation has now arisen that will surely test Article 23 of the Universal Declaration — the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment. This follows a pronouncement by the Government — not yet legislated, mind you — that hospitality workers must be vaccinated or else they cannot return to work.
At a glance, some might argue that there is nothing wrong with such a move, especially as COVID-19 continues to haunt us. However, is it really justified to take away the right of someone to choose whether to get vaccinated or not by threatening them with their very livelihoods?
Just because something is policy, or can be justified under certain rules and regulations, does that make it right? Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, so just when does compelling someone to rescind his or her right to choose become right and just, even in the current environment?
Let's call it what it is. We all have, in the context of this health crisis, voluntarily ceded many of our freedoms to those in power; creating an artificial state of dictatorship all over the world. Having ceded it, it will most certainly not be as easy to take it back tomorrow. The mutual understanding is that those liberties will be returned once more. But what if they are not?
I am not sure many of us realise just how bad the timing of this COVID-19-driven lockdown has been. Even before the pandemic the world was already seeing worrying signs of an erosion of democracy in many places. As early as April 2019 a study by the University of Gothenburg had discovered a decline in democratic rule in several countries, pointing out that “60 of the 75 democracies that at some point have gone through a process of autocratisation have ultimately become dictatorships”. It suggests that many countries were already on the verge of seeing an erosion of democracy even before COVID-19 pushed everything over the edge.
But what really stood out to me in that study is its finding that “what is unique about the decline of democracy today is that the process is slow and it is happening unobtrusively”. I can only imagine that our experience over the past 16 months has only served to deepen this crisis.
Let us reflect on the fact that dictatorships are often characterised by suspension of civil liberties, proclamation of a state of emergency, rule by decree, repression of political opponents/critics, particularly the media, not abiding by the rule of law procedures and cult of personality. All of us have experienced at least some of these following the advent of the pandemic, and in many places responsible leaders have rolled back restrictions. But it has not occurred everywhere, and more and more we are seeing how much easier it is getting for leaders — including in some places long held as beacons of democracy — to lock down people and their rights, and to say that you cannot do this and you cannot do that.
I am not one to subscribe to the convention that if someone does 'A' it follows that they will automatically do 'B', but it certainly makes it much easier, doesn't it? And so we come full circle: The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Freedom should not so easily and hastily be abandoned.
We must educate ourselves about what is taking place in the world, and we must begin paying greater attention to the actions of those who govern. Social media allows all of us a voice in this modern era; do not be afraid to let your voices be heard.
I leave you with a quote from the late American journalist Walter Cronkite: “There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free or you are not free.”
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