Coronavirus News Asia

Covid-19 is ‘an affront to democracy’

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“This pandemic is an affront [Zumutung] to democracy because it restricts our existential rights and needs,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germany’s parliament April 23. That poignant formulation comes from the chief executive of a country whose response to Covid-19 was among the world’s most successful, with only 64 deaths per million of population compared to 148 in the United States, 423 in Italy and 335 in France. Dr. Merkel, who holds a PhD in quantum chemistry, added that the world is not at the end of the pandemic but just at the beginning: “We shall have to live with this virus for a long time.” Although the infection rate has fallen, “this interim result is fragile. We are treading on thin ice – on the thinnest of ice,” Merkel said.

The affront to which the German Chancellor referred is the restriction of movement and public gatherings, but a far greater affront to democracy is in the offing, namely universal mandatory testing for Covid-19, and tracking of individual disease carriers, the equivalent of a search of one’s person and premises. This conjures visions of totalitarian dystopias, although democratic South Korea has been among the most aggressive practitioners of tracking via smartphone location.

There probably is no way to prevent the spread of Covid-19 except by locating and isolating every single individual carrier. Perhaps 40% of all cases are asymptomatic but nonetheless contagious, we know from Iceland and a handful of cities where the entire population was tested. That makes conventional tracking methods useless. Merkel has been advised by her medical crisis team that herd immunity never may be achieved, or if it is, only after a long period of time, because it is impossible to determine whether human antibodies provide much protection against infection. For the same reason, it is simply not known whether a vaccine will be found, let alone whether any vaccine will be effective.

Letting the virus run its course carries a horrific risk. Contrary to first impressions, this is not a form of pneumonia, but a disease that prevents the body’s organs from absorbing oxygen. It can attack internal organs as easily as the lungs, and the risk of an epidemic of deaths by organ failure is too great to accept.

The alternatives come down to three. First, do nothing and accept the risk of death on the scale of the 1919 influenza pandemic. Second, lock everyone down indefinitely to reduce the rate of infection. Third, test everyone and track every prospective carrier via smartphone location. All three are horrible. We cannot all stay home forever and shut the economy. And if we give emergency powers to governments to compel virus tests and track our location, how will we take those powers back if and when the epidemic is over?

China brought the epidemic under control quickly in large part because it has tracked the location of every smartphone in the country for years, and matched location to online purchases and social media postings. Adding the result of virus tests was a minor task given the surveillance infrastructure already in place. Then in February, Tencent and Alipay introduced a smartphone app that required users to input their body temperature and Covid-19 test status. The app generates a “green” screen for virus-free users. Local Communist Party organizations install video cameras at the door of quarantined individuals to ensure compliance.

Westerners in general and Americans in particular will never tolerate this degree of surveillance. Protests against shelter-in-place orders are spreading in the United States, with the encouragement of the Trump Administration. Attorney General William Barr told a radio interviewer April 20 that enforced quarantines and other drastic public health measures adopted by some states place “unprecedented burdens on civil liberties,” adding, “When a governor acts, especially when a governor does something that intrudes upon or infringes on a fundamental right or a Constitutional right, they’re bounded by that.”

But is there a legal basis to compel tests and to track carriers? That’s unclear.

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