The immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt in every facet of our lives. If you or a loved one aren’t personally suffering from the virus, then you’re probably practising social distancing. The global news cycle is dominated by 24-hour corona coverage, and the upswell in community support during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially evident on social media. Social distancing practices are enforced not only by the police but also by citizens online. Through social media, people are advocating for self-isolation and encouraging their friends and followers to do the same. But as the fight against coronavirus continues, there is increasing tension between the rights of the individual versus the greater good in a democratic society. Increasing levels of global disengagement from democracy have experts concerned with the possibility of overreaching legislation being passed in times of crisis to be weaponised in times of peace. In a time where governmental control is essential, when and where do we draw the line?
Lawmakers have historically used crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic as a vehicle to sneak in typically unfavourable additions to emergency policy. For instance, in the United States, Republican lawmakers have tried to add the anti-abortion Hyde-amendment to any COVID-19 funding. The Hyde Amendment forbids federal funding of abortions, making it almost impossible for low-income women to obtain an abortion. Lawmakers argued that by not including the Hyde Amendment into COVID-19 funding packages, Democrats are contradicting federal spending bans on abortions and allowing coronavirus spending packages to be used to fund abortions.
Even more disturbing, the USA Freedom Reauthorisation Act of 2020 recently passed in America’s House of Representatives, despite strong bipartisan opposition from the public. The bill empowers the National Security Agency and other US intelligence authorities to continue spying on innocent citizens, all masked under the guise of national security. While the media and the public’s attention is consumed by fears of coronavirus, the American government is approving legislation which increases their spying powers and further invades citizen’s privacy.
Closer to home, the issue of privacy amidst a global pandemic is rearing its head. The Australian government adapted TraceTogether—an app made in Singapore which tracks those infected with coronavirus and the people they come into contact with prior to quarantine. Singapore has seen a 20% uptake of the app; the Australian government hopes for 40%. Privacy experts have warned that even though the app is voluntary, its implementation could raise concerns over individual privacy after the coronavirus crisis ends. Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, a senior science and engineering lecturer from Flinders University, seriously doubts the government’s ability to reap any benefit from the implementation of the COVIDSafe app, given the lacklustre numbers of participants with the My Health database. Dr Gardner-Stephen remarks that “if there’s one thing that’s possibly more sensitive than health information, it’s actually who you associate with.” Whilst the app does not track a user’s exact location, compiling other forms of data can give auditors an accurate idea of where the user is, as well as locations they frequently visit.
The fear of losing our right to privacy and individual freedom in the fight for control and the benefit of the greater good during a crisis such as COVID-19 is a valid one. Dwindling levels of global engagement with democracy have experts such as Dr Bradley Shipway concerned for the future of Australia’s democratic freedom. A lecturer at Southern Cross University, Dr Shipway highlights the necessity for an overhaul of the education system and criticises current school environments as “the perfect atmosphere for creating disengaged democratic citizens.” Dr Shipway has a right to be concerned. In the 2019 federal election, less than 91% of Australians cast a ballot, either formal or informal. There is a particularly high level of disengagement amongst Australia’s youth, with the youngest electoral seat in the country (Melbourne) achieving a voter turnout of less than 82%. Dr Shipway also highlights that an authoritarian model of government is appealing in times of crisis—“there are things you can do in a ‘command and control’ economy that you can’t do in a ‘supply and demand’ economy”. China’s communist government has granted them a centralised model of control, equipping them with concise decision making powers. Meanwhile, the American government’s limited role in the economy has granted an opportunity for the private sector to fill a leadership vacuum. In the absence of a national distribution program, smaller hospitals and care facilities are being left behind. The benefits of centralised power and authoritarian control are tempting during times such as these, but the concern for individual freedom and civil liberties once the crisis is over is significant.
There is a saying that if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. Place that frog in a pot of cold water and turn the flame on, the frog will eventually boil to death. The analogy serves to warn against complacency and disengagement from your surroundings. President of the Law Council of Australia, Pauline Wright, has warned that we should all be aware of this analogy as the government continues to implement measures to combat COVID-19. The council has questioned whether the government’s “extraordinary measures” have crossed fundamental privacy boundaries and become “a little too extraordinary”. Advocate groups such as the South Australian Council For Civil Liberties are calling upon the federal government to introduce parliamentary committees to monitor the situation and repeal restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so. At a state level, the WA parliament has passed the Emergency Management Amendment (COVID-19 response) Bill 2020. Only one of the amendments included in the bill guarantees a ‘sunset clause’—a condition determining the amendment’s expiry at the end of the crisis. This raises concerns for groups such as Civil Liberties Australia, who warn that the powers to monitor and detain sufferers of coronavirus could potentially include powers to use technology such as drones, vehicle license plate recognition, and electronic tracking devices. Professor John Keane at the University of Sydney cautions “Unless they are resisted, concentrations of arbitrary power always display a definite stickiness”.
However, Dr Shipway warns our democracy is at a turning point of striking a balance between individual freedoms and the needs of the greater community; “We must do a much better job of engaging young students in constructing a free and fair society”. He advocates for parents to encourage their children to adopt critical thinking skills and warns an education system which emphasises the “basics” of literacy and numeracy, is leaving a generation of children sorely unprepared for a world which is “anything but basic”. Instead of simply teaching children how to vote, we have to show them why voting is so important and equip them with the necessary tools to understand who they are voting for.
Citizens disengaged from the democratic process risk not feeling the water’s temperature rising and becoming the proverbial frog in the pot. These critical thinking skills will allow Australian society to engage more deeply with our democracy once the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Dr Shipway remarks “History has taught us that Democracy is fragile, it needs to be nurtured to survive”, and whilst it is imperative we teach our young people to engage with democracy, it is the responsibility of all Australians to protect our civil liberties and hold our government to account. Just because the virus is non-democratic, must our solution be?