After a national crisis, the government has a tendency to take our rights away from us.
The 9/11 attacks prompted officials at the time to strip our rights to online privacy. Our phone and internet usage data has since been funneled without our consent into government databases to be evaluated. This practice, under the Patriot Act, was justified to us as a temporary national security initiative to prevent further terrorist plots. But after 19 years, as our data continues to be collected by the government and freely sold between tech companies, we are no closer to gaining our online privacy back. It’s as if we had never had it in the first place.
To build up our army during World War II, the government instituted Selective Service, an emergency measure requiring all men under 35 to register for potential conscription. But the idea of conscription was so normalized by the war’s end that the program was renewed and remains in effect to this day. Those who were once able to refuse military service are now denied access to federal benefits, including student aid, if they don’t put their name down for a potential draft.
Now, under the threat of COVID-19, the government has strictly limited where we can go and who we can interact with. Most of us happily accept this without question because we understand the restrictions to be temporary and necessary for society to recover. But assuming that things will go back to normal once the virus is eliminated is dangerously naive.
To prevent the spread of the virus, policymakers are taking increasingly drastic measures to curtail our individual rights and freedoms. If we normalize these emergency regulations as we have done so many times before, they could permeate our way of life for years beyond this pandemic; leading to excessive government control over our healthcare, movement and even speech.
Bill Gates, the world’s largest funder of coronavirus vaccines, recently called for public digital certificates of every American’s vaccination status, which would take away our right to patient confidentiality. Tech companies are developing government contact tracing apps that would track people’s locations 24/7, taking away our right to privacy from state surveillance. YouTube has banned all videos contradicting World Health Organization guidelines, stripping our right to critique an unelected international organization on their platform. Meanwhile, Denmark passed a law allowing its authorities to vaccinate people without their consent. If we followed suit, we would no longer have the right – so cherished in most contexts – to choose what’s done with our own bodies.
Our constitutional rights to free assembly, religion and protest have also been challenged by the virus, as funeral attendees, church worshippers and protesters alike have been arrested to halt the spread. The consequence of this is perhaps the most worrying of them all: where our government can assume absolute, unconstitutional power at a moment’s notice whenever it declares an emergency; and be met with hardly any skepticism from Americans.
While these policies are useful in curbing the spread of the virus, any of these policies would be borderline authoritarian in normal times. It would be dangerous if we allowed them to set precedents for our society going forward. Say the government instituted mandatory contact tracing apps – many would clamor for them to become lasting fixtures of our lives to prevent future deaths. Tyrannical government surveillance could become commonplace unless we remember what life was like beforehand and stand up against it.
As we’ve seen with Selective Service after World War II or online privacy after 9/11, we often fail to remember the freedoms we enjoyed before a crisis and instead normalize a more oppressive life. If we continue down this same path, we may one day forget we could ever travel or assemble without a government permit, or even shake hands with a friend without first verifying their health status.
No matter where you may stand politically, you should always remember what your rights were before this pandemic. Try to think beyond just the number of COVID-19-related deaths and consider the broader societal ramifications of any policy. As restrictions continue, ask yourself whether it is still necessary for your rights to be denied you, and ensure your sacrificing them now will not lead to their permanent forfeiture. The coronavirus won’t last longer than a year or two, but the consequences of our lost civil liberties could be felt for generations.
Above all, do not take individual liberty for granted as just some antiquated, right-wing talking point. Individual liberty is at the core of each decision we have made throughout our entire lives. If we lose it, we are little more than glorified automatons.
Let’s save lives as much as we can; but not create a future in which we’d rather not live at all.
Filip Vachuda, a rising junior majoring in international affairs and economics, is a writer.