Freedom or “freedom”

The UK government is now (July 13th) determined to relax all pandemic restrictions while seeing the exponentially increasing numbers of people ill, taken to hospital, or dying. Scottish government (for those who are not familiar with the British government, Scotland is part of the United Kingdom but retains quite a level of independence) is more cautious and I suspect will get a massive bashing from many people for not allowing as much “freedom” here as in England.

The UK government is setting its policy in terms of “health or freedom”. It is ignoring scientific evidence of the impeding large outbreak and arguing that it is necessary to reopen to save the economics. It is removing all restrictions while the number of cases is growing exponentially and hospitalisation, ICU and death numbers are growing. On 6 July, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons that: “freedom is in our sights once again”.

The following tweet exchange illustrates this attitude:

I am finding this attitude very disturbing. Firstly, I know a lot of people in India and they have been terrified by the outbreak and its consequences. They have been highly critical of their government. No, I do not think “NHS is not swamped India-style” is a criterion by which we should be judging the UK government.

But I also think that the “freedom or health” dichotomy is completely wrong.

An extreme version of the libertarian approach argues that the government intervention should be minimal and that citizens themselves should be able to mutually agree on the right balance of what we can or cannot do, possibly with help of the free market. This philosophy underlined Brazil, Sweden and Trump/USA approach to COVID-19 pandemic and has now resurfaced in Boris Johnson decision to reopen the UK.

Stephen Reicher writes:

A large part of the answer lies in the way in which the whole discussion has been framed in terms of a simple binary between “liberty” and “lockdown”. (…)

The consequence of such a rhetorical polarisation is that any Covid measure is now turned into a matter of endorsing “lockdown” and opposing “liberty”. However moderate or mild, it becomes the battleground for a symbolic struggle between perceived good and evil, and so any grounds for discussion or compromise are removed.

The “anti-lockdown” argument is wrong. Reicher again:

Conceptualising all restrictions as removing our freedom obscures the fact that, as SPI-B proposed, many of the most important measures are about supporting and enabling people to do what they want, not stopping them. These include providing accessible facilities so people can easily get tested and vaccinated, supporting self-isolation so people can stay home when necessary, and ensuring public places are well-ventilated so people don’t get infected.

But this is not what the “libertarian” approach does. By painting the choice in terms of black-or-white, the decision is now taken to remove (almost) all Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions, rather than having a sensible discussion on what should or should not stay to eliminate, and eventually eradicate, the virus.

This is already causing suffering and deaths which could have been avoided. Dominic Cummings’ question:

Who do we not save?

becomes again relevant.

Coming back to the question: Freedom or health? – it is simply a wrong question. We need both – enough freedom to help the government, society, schools and churches to function, and enough diverse measures to mitigate the viral risk to save those who might otherwise suffer or die.

What has been needed throughout the last 18 months, is a proper, serious discussion on how to balance the measures needed to quickly eliminate the virus – and Reicher points out that there are many more ways to do this beyond the “hard” lockdown – with the needs to keep the economy open and to give children something to eat and the right education. Such discussion has been missing, with tragic consequences.

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