Freedom Still Matters, Even in the Midst of a Virus
On Friday, Pope Francis delivered a special sermon to pray for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the depressing scenery of the deserted St. Peter’s Square on the rainy night matched the words of the Holy Father:
Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost.
The image of the “plague” crucifix added a special gravity to this prayer, as the unusually high mortality rates in Italy and especially Lombardy have made the disease seem like a modern plague. Some of my friends there intentionally did not travel to their home cities in fear of infecting their elderly parents and have spent the last four weeks isolated in their rooms. Regardless of our political views, all of us wish for a quick end to this situation. However, as a lot of us devote most of our attention to the “defeat” of the coronavirus, we pave the way for the unrestrained authoritarian measures of our governments.
There's Little Public Resistance
Most of our government officials have not enforced these measures on their own initiative against a people that completely rejects the curbing of their civil liberties. On the contrary, some politicians feared that they might be seen as as too weak for not supporting lockdowns enough. Make no mistake, there is widespread public acceptance of the restrictions imposed by government, as, for example, the surging approval ratings of the Bavarian minister president, the first in Germany to impose strict measures, show.
This panic policymaking could easily be the basis for a modern form of unlimited government. As Lord Acton remarked:
Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State…the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute.
Right now, public health, which has already been a popular topic among the modern absolutists, is that single definite object. Politicians and wannabe politicians in the affected Western countries complain about how the health system is not capable of handling this exceptional situation because the government has not spent enough money, and they call for more spending, more taxes, and more debt to fund it. There are more contagious diseases than the novel coronavirus, so why not use the emergency powers to protect against them? The public will be susceptible to these points. COVID-19 might prove to be a similar catchword to “9/11” or “Bataclan,” that can always be invoked to expand the power of the state over the lives of its citizens.
It is important to be aware that the current government interventions are legitimated by the voters. Fear and the desire to abdicate some individual responsibility, which comes with the choice whether to change my lifestyle or not, have been important fuels for this havoc.
Pope Francis framed his sermon around Mark 4:37–41:
And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
The Holy Father notes that we find ourselves in the situation of the disciples, caught off guard by a disaster. And, naturally, in times of crisis, people look to their leaders. The leader of the disciples was Jesus, whom the wind and the sea obeyed. However, our leaders do not have his divine powers, and forgetting that there are limits to what single men and governments can achieve might create a modern absolutism of governments whose powers are assumed to be godlike. Only individual adaption to this new situation will be able to create a sustainable solution. For that, we need our civil liberties and the freedom to make choices for ourselves. Protecting our lives and our liberty is a responsibility that is not simply delegated to the government—we still retain it. It is important to remind people of the benefits of a free society during and after this pandemic.