Could unchecked government power be more dangerous than the threat of infectious disease?

When citizens are fearful and fraught with panic, they willingly give up freedoms for promises that the government will provide safety. Is unchecked government power more dangerous than the threat of infectious disease?

Since the first US case of COVID-19 was confirmed by the CDC on January 21, life as we know it has dramatically changed. The number of reported cases continues to rise, schools and businesses have been shut down nationwide, and state and local governments are taking extraordinary measures to keep citizens apart to curb the spread of the virus.

Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders are being instituted daily across the country. Some are more restrictive than others, with violations deemed a criminal offense subject to fines and/or jail time in certain areas. As of March 31, these restrictions have affected approximately 265 million people in 32 states, 80 counties, 17 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to an interactive map published by the New York Times.

When approached properly, staying inside, limiting public contact and cooperating with medically necessary virus tracking efforts are reasonable and responsible actions. However, forcing citizens to stay at home and imposing broad restrictions — particularly for an undetermined length of time — can have dire consequences on citizens’ socioeconomic, psychological and physical well being.

For example, social workers are already reporting that child abuse and domestic violence cases are rising. People who are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill (such as the elderly and people with pre-existing health problems) are in more danger now because they are losing access to health care services. Other people who need extra care and protection, even under normal circumstances, are now being isolated from their support systems due to social distancing measures.

Moreover, one study found an increased risk of death among men following a job loss, and a 2020 Lancet study found that the restriction of liberties during quarantine could have devastating adverse effects, including increased reports of suicides and lawsuits. We are already seeing these effects. Crisis hotlines are being flooded, and officials in Tennessee noted that the state had more deaths from suicide last week than coronavirus.

At the same time, serious questions about the legality and constitutionality of the emergency powers being invoked are emerging; specifically, emergency powers that allow for the detainment of anyone on mere suspicion of exposure to someone who tested positive, or is suspected to be positive, for COVID-19. Further, on March 22, it was reported that the Justice Department asked Congress to allow chief judges to detain individuals indefinitely without trials during emergencies. The power to detain healthy, law-abiding individuals is deeply alarming and is evidence of lawmakers casting aside civil and constitutional rights.

In the meantime, some localities are instituting drastic measures to attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19. In Rhode Island, for example, Gov. Gina Raimondo issued an order authorizing police traffic stops to identify individuals who had recently traveled to or from New York, the epicenter of the virus. The National Guard and Rhode Island law enforcement will also be going door to door in certain coastal communities, demanding any individuals who have come from New York to quarantine for 14 days.

In addition to safeguarding the public’s health, elected officials have an obligation to uphold the civil liberties and constitutional rights of their constituents. One cannot be sacrificed or exchanged for the other. Indefinitely detaining individuals on suspicion of exposure to COVID-19 is a civil rights violation. Indefinitely restricting the activities of healthy citizens is a civil rights violation. Furthermore, the government-mandated shutdown of businesses strips citizens’ of their ability to make a living, further impinging on their civil rights.

At present, the lethality of the coronavirus and its prevalence are being debated in scientific, medical and political circles. Some researchers are calling into question the accuracy of COVID-19 testing and the number of case and death reports. Because this is a novel virus that we’ve been dealing with for a relatively short time, we don’t have a lot of solid data upon which to base decisions. Therefore, it’s crucial that any measures government officials take are supported by science and are proportional to the threats they are trying to mitigate.

With that said, SHF is urging our elected officials to take the least restrictive means possible and consider voluntary isolation measures as an alternative to imposing curfews and mandatory shelter-in-place restrictions. This viewpoint is also being espoused by the ACLU, which said it “will be watching closely to make sure the government’s response is ​scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary.”

Experts believe the coronavirus primarily endangers the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. As such, we believe that policy makers should focus their efforts on reducing risks for that population while evaluating the effects widespread quarantines will have — on our nation’s economy and our citizens’ physical and emotional well being. No one should ever be collateral damage in a war against infectious disease. The ability to maintain freedom of movement, freedom to assemble, freedom to maintain our livelihoods, freedom to access the outdoors, and freedom to responsibly connect with friends, family and the community at large are all freedoms we value and should vigorously defend.

Please join the mission and look out for updates and opportunities to stand for basic human rights, constitutional rights and civil rights, as times of crisis create opportunities for governmental overreach and undue oppression. 

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