COVID-19 Second Wave Fears Further Threaten Civil Liberties

Commentary, COVID-19, Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

On September 18, Israel re-locked down the country for the following three weeks, becoming the first developed country to shut down for the second time. This second COVID-19 lockdown comes four months after lifting the first one instituted in March. How Israeli citizens react to the unsustainable nature of re-lockdowns will be instructive for the Canadian jurisdictions that have increased a rhetoric of fear about a second wave. 

As of September 21, Israel counted 190,929 COVID-19 cases, with 1,273 deaths (among 8.7 million Israelis). Israel currently has 58,976 active cases, the fastest infection rate in the world, and 653 of its cases are considered serious. 

Reactions to the first weekend of the second Israeli lockdown seem worrisome. Shops and restaurants opened in protest despite fines of $1500 US per day, religious gatherings and public protests organized in defiance of the new orders. Over 7000 police officers patrolled streets and manned checkpoints. They handed nearly 5000 tickets to people violating the 1-kilometre radius zone from their domiciles that is permitted, and close to 200 tickets for failing to wear mandatory masks. Some restaurant owners were even arrested for refusing to close. Given the enforcement and levels of resistance, discontent and civil disobedience may increase. Reluctant liberal democratic societies can only tolerate so much enforcement.

On this side of the world, in reaction to increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections in the province, Quebec may grant greater police powers, including the power to violate private domiciles to stop gatherings that break the 10-person limit. Given that infections do not by a long shot equal hospitalizations, civil libertarians are rightly sounding warning bells. 

Ironically, the new measures could be in place in time for the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, a painful chapter in Quebec history. The province and the country were sent into crisis when a terrorist cell for the Front de Libération to Québec (FLQ) kidnapped Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s minister of labour, and James Cross, the British trade commissioner. Laporte was later murdered. Reacting to the kidnappings then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sent troops into the streets of Montreal as if it were Northern Ireland. Memories of countless violations of fundamental rights against so many suspected of sympathising with the separatist terrorists, forcibly rounded up, beaten and abused, still haunt surviving Quebeckers.

Next door, Ontarians should worry about their premier’s vaporous rhetoric. On September 14, Ontario’s premier heightened the COVID-19 panic. Following 31,143 tests and 313 new cases (one percent of those tested), Ford torqued fear invoking a second COVID-19 wave: “I believe it is coming as sure as I am standing here.” He also raised the threat of a new lockdown: “…every option is on the table. We will take up every step necessary, including further shutdowns.”

Ontario’s premier now boasts that Ontario leads Canada, reaching 40,000 and aiming at 50,000 daily tests. The connection between “hammering the testing,” as Ford calls it, and the infection increases seems to be ignored. The more tests, the more infected cases. 

Alarmist headlines emphasising case growth scare some but only harden existing sceptics and make new ones. 478 new cases were reported on September 22, but what really matters is that there were 82 COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospitals, and that there is a legitimate concern this number doubled since September 13 (24 of whom are in intensive care, with 11 of them on ventilators). Of the 478 new cases, however, 8 people are aged over 80, the most critically vulnerable, and 3 new COVID-19 deaths were reported in a population of nearly 15 million people. The overblown emphasis on infection cases informs little and drives fears that may backfire.

Ontarians should be equally concerned with the escalating language and condescending vitriol toward challengers, sceptics, and rule-breakers. On September 21, responding to questions about “clamping down,” Ontario’s premier implied that people who attended an event in Ancaster are brainless and vowed to track them down for “putting people’s lives in jeopardy.” There is no evidence that the alleged brainless have infected anyone, yet the premier’s comments pave the way for unleashing coercive machinery against those who may legitimately disagree with his inflated medical rhetoric, his punishing instincts, and the desire to paint himself as a saviour. 

Unless there is a rational perspective about the rising number of infection cases and reasonable mitigating strategies to protect the vulnerable, the alarmist rhetoric risks panicking into another harmful lockdown while simultaneously increasing scepticism, challenges, and resistance. 

Albertans need not directly worry about police roundups in Laurentian Canada, but these are dangerous precedents for the healthy number of Albertans challenging the continuation of some lockdown conditions, the threat of returning to another unsustainable lockdown, and the fear-laden language of public medical officials.

 

Marco Navarro-Génie is Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the President of the Haultain Research Institute. He is co-author, with Barry Cooper, of the upcoming COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash