Covid Restriction vs Individual Freedom
To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Nelson Mandela
As we all become more and more frustrated with various levels of ‘lockdown’, debate is escalating about the virtues, economics, and politics of Covid restrictions imposed in the name of community health. This debate hit a predictably low point through the mouth of Tony Abbott who, quoting far right conspiracy theorists, accused Dan Andrews of establishing a ‘Health Dictatorship’. Only he could confirm or deny he is a member of QAnon, but it is language beloved of this far-right group.
Presumably, Tony Abbott and others with the same mindset on Sky News, believe that freedom is the capacity to do whatever you please, without restriction. Notoriously this freedom includes the right to speak in a manner that demeans or diminishes another. This understanding of freedom emerges from the a priori assumption that the individual is humanity’s base or fundamental unit. This is not the Christian view; it is not the biblical view.
The biblical starting point is that the base unit is the household, the οικονομος. (Oikinomos). So, freedom expands as the household is built up, protected and nurtured. We are never free in isolation. What, you might validly ask, is the household? The household can refer to the immediate family, the neighbourhood, the nation, or the global community. The principle remains the same. Christianity speaks of the individual within the context of the household to which they belong and in which they hold responsibility. Paul uses the metaphor of the ‘body’ to describe the household. Each plays their part. Each has a responsibility to the whole. Each is more whole because of the other. Righteousness, one of scripture’s prioritised virtues, refers to the right behaviour of an individual in the context of the household of which she or he is part.
In the context of the pandemic we share the life of many households: our immediate family, our local community, the State, the Nation, and the Globe. We have a responsibility to all of them. In the exercise of this responsibility there is a huge paradox as outlined in last Sunday’s gospel reading: Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Mtt. 16:25.
The application of this paradox to the various shutdowns is not hard to make. The route to normalised movement, gatherings, and travel is via a temporary giving up of those freedoms for the sake of all. On the other hand, holding on to individual rights, to doing as we please, spreading the virus, is the route to prolonged diminishment of community life, fear, and duress.
It is easy to champion an assumed covert, malign, and unseen power, hellbent on removing liberties, as Donald Trump is wont to do. Accusing others of dictatorship, like most accusations, illuminates the one making the accusation rather than the one being accused. Marion Wilkinson’s new book, The Carbon Club (Allan and Unwin) illustrates how in the first hours of his ascendancy to Prime Minister, Abbott sacked any or all senior public servants whose views did not coincide with his own, especially on the topic of climate change. Removing those whose ideas are different to one’s own is one of the classic behaviours of a dictator.
Of course, there needs to be balance. Those suffering most through the pandemic are not simply the elderly for whom the virus has had fatal consequences. Others who have suffered greatly have been the thousands who have lost employment and businesses, small and large alike, who have been prevented from commercial trade. However, anecdotal evidence from other countries, notably the US is that living without restrictions is counterproductive, not only do many more fall victim to the virus but the level of fear, perhaps panic in the community prevents normal trade and more suffer economically than in countries with restrictions.
Setting health priorities against economic priorities is wrong at a fundamental level and shows a serious misunderstanding of what ‘economy’ means. Its derivation is oikonomos, household. The ‘economy’ describes collective behaviour that builds the wellbeing of the household, not the individual. Neoliberal economic theory has moved a long way from this understanding. Privatisation of almost everything has not enhanced the household. The use of private contractors to guard folk in quarantine is the most recent example. Deregulating the market, has not enhanced the household although it has made a small number of individuals very wealthy. Giving short term economic gain priority over ecological sustainability has not protected the household. During the pandemic too many workers have lost their jobs while many CEO’s whose companies have benefited from ‘Job-keeper’ have enjoyed bonuses. As mostly happens in a crisis, the very wealthy have become more wealthy while thousands fall under the safety net into poverty.
It is a sad reality that many restrictions are in place because of the poor behaviour of a minority. All could be isolated at home if all could be trusted to do so. Unfortunately, evidence suggests this is not the case. It is likely that the virus could have been virtually eliminated if everyone were tested as soon as they exhibited symptoms.
The supreme irony is that the community at large is suffering far greater privation than should be needed, not because of the restrictions set by State premiers, but because of ignorant and ill-chosen words from people like President Trump and Tony Abbott. They give comfort to people who refuse to act with the best interest of others in mind and camouflage their own selfish behaviour, with accusations against those who have responsibility for community safety; accusing them not simply overreaching, but of ill-intent.