Robert Ostergard By: Robert Ostergard
Associate Professor
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03 May 2020 : The Rise of Pandemic Social Authoritarianism

These are some quick thoughts I’ve had as the protests against the quarantine pick up. During this pandemic, we have watched carefully as dictators and pseudo-democrats have sought to use the pandemic as a way to tighten their grips over power in their countries. These are not unexpected as leaders throughout history have used crises as a way to justify a litany of authoritarian tainted policies designed to stifle and even to crush the opposition.

But we may have overlooked a more important, creeping problem particularly in democratic states. While leaders’ power grab gets out attention, we may also be in the midst of a form of social authoritarianism where the violation of civil rights and liberties is found at the individual and group-social level and political entrepreneurs pick up those cues as part of their oftentimes populist rhetoric.

The perpetrators are loud and boisterous. At the heart of the matter is the battle between the civil rights and liberties of those who see the pandemic as a global public health problem and those that see the pandemic as an economic issue. The clash is a temporal problem: the longer people are in shutdown, the more some of them see the economic side as more pressing. Both sides of the argument see the pandemic as a matter of survival – death by disease or death by economic strangulation.

The debate is a real one and its not to be belittled or ignored. Both are serious problems. For the public health approach, people accept that the risk is real and are risk-averse; there is no need to expose oneself needlessly. But the economic side of the debate has led to much deeper issues and questions. At what point does economics take precedence over public health? For some, it has taken precedence right from the start; for others, it is a growing frustration that culminates in a vocal outburst and violent imagery that challenges official recommendations and advances the willingness to sacrifice others.

At its worst, the emerging social authoritarian has passed judgment on who should live and die in the pandemic, who should sacrifice, and who should benefit. Young generations have taken to calling the pandemic the “boomer remover,” and groups have demanded their “liberty” in opposition to the economic shutdown. In a number of cases, protesting groups have pushed the message that the pandemic is either overblown or a full-blown hoax.

In Mississippi, group leaders said that measures to decrease the probability of viral transmission should be an individual decision and that businesses should be allowed to conduct business as they see fit. So, catering companies – no need to use masks or social distancing unless you want to do so. Risk of infection, according to one protester is just part of living in a free society: “That’s just a risk we have in a free society. In a free society, there’s risk you have to take. It’s up to you as an individual to decide on how you should protect yourself and which is the best precaution to do so and not force it upon everybody.”

The sentiment is real, but the impact is not about the liberties of a particular individual; they are about the health and well-being of a society. This problem may be a unique condition that is more prone in the United States than in other countries. The country’s history of “individualism” and “freedom” often is a rallying cry for anyone who disagrees with policies that are meant to contend with larger social issues. The view isn’t disingenuous, but it is myopic.

What has become problematic has been the willingness of these nebulous groups to bypass the rights of others in their calls for “freedom.” The elderly can be sacrificed; the immune compromised just have to live with the risk; the young with underdeveloped immune systems just have to face life in the cruel world; the healthy and unlucky are just, well, unlucky. Perhaps the number one defining characteristic of the social authoritarianism is the tremendous lack of empathy and concern for human life. Society is always facing the tensions between rights of people and even rights of groups. But societies and states always prioritize rights. It is what a state does to balance rights that matters. With the right economic and social policies in place, economic hardship can be mitigated. The death of a person cannot be.

We have faced this question on a somewhat large scale. When states began to ban cigarette smoking in public places, the main argument in doing so was that second-hand smoke was a hazard that could affect the health of others in close proximity to the smoke. The arguments against it were that it violated the rights of individuals and that businesses would lose money. It turns out the impact may be differential depending on the type of business; however, the public health effects are indisputable.

Fundamentally, people may prioritize their rights and civil liberties, but at what point does the right to one’s health and the right to live outstrip short-term economic sacrifices? More importantly, does one’s lack of belief in science give them the right to impose the consequences of that belief upon others? Or to put it differently: do some people’s economic rights take precedence over others’ health rights?

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