COVID-19 and Liberalism
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.

COVID-19 and Liberalism

Kristijan Fidanovski
Kristijan Fidanovski
8 min read

To survive COVID-19, we’ve had to adjust the way we live. But how much do we need to adjust the way we think? Some changes have already become necessary. We need to read about abstract concepts like “exponential growth” more than we ever thought we would. We also need to unconditionally accept—this time without “considering an alternative perspective”—some basic scientific facts about the spread of infectious diseases that have been known for centuries.

But what none of us need to—or should—change is our individual value framework. For those of us looking to our political ideology as our moral compass in life, COVID-19 is just another bump on the road. Extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions, we keep hearing, mostly from leaders seeking unconditional co-operation from their people “in these times of crisis.” But isn’t this firm distinction between the extraordinary and the ordinary an unbearably self-defeating conclusion? A tacit admission that everything we’ve ever believed about human nature under normal circumstances was wrong—if we can’t use it when we need it the most?

The liberal case for targeted behavior restrictions

Contrary to the myriad of pundits and experts warning that “[relying on] political ideology [in a crisis] can kill you” and likening ideology to an infection in its own right, ideology does matter during a crisis. Presented with a choice between educational and restrictive measures, policymakers are essentially facing the same value dilemma they have already faced in countless other situations. But does this mean every restrictive measure adopted by liberal policymakers would amount to ideological heresy? Or is restriction sometimes compatible with education?

It can be. Take one of the most universally embraced human practices: legal imprisonment. Long accepted as a necessary measure by all but the most radical of activists, this policy is founded on a win-win appeal across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives presume that the threat of going to prison will deter people from committing crimes. For liberals, incarceration is justified by the obligation to protect the rest of society—as well as the convict himself—from the convict. Liberals aren’t rejecting the convict’s capacity for self-improvement; if anything, they are going to the trouble of imprisoning him because they believe he can be rehabilitated and then hopefully reintegrated into society.

In the COVID-19 context, the same protection-oriented rationale translates into a liberal endorsement for bans on public gatherings. It’s no longer about your right to go to a happy hour. It’s about the risk of you getting infected and potentially passing the virus to a more responsible family member, who, unlike you, does understand how the virus works, would never act as recklessly as you did, and therefore has the right to be protected from contracting the virus through no fault of their own. The same reasoning can prompt other targeted restrictions—such as the closure of all confined spaces (e.g., bars, restaurants, shopping malls, or gyms) that constitute an explicit transmission vector for the virus.

Measures like these must not be regarded as an admission that people can never be educated on the dangers of socialization during an epidemic. Instead, they are meant to keep us safe until we have received—and processed—enough information to keep ourselves safe. (In fact, public gatherings have usually been banned as an early crisis measure at a stage where citizens are relatively uninformed about the virus.)

Moreover, targeted restrictions do not exclude education—if anything, given their imperfect enforceability, they depend on it. We are relying on bar and restaurant owners to willingly respect the measure and keep their establishments closed: Since policing every single bar and restaurant in the country is impossible, fear might not suffice. Similarly, if their customers are uneducated about the dangers of the virus, they will just replace bars and restaurants with house parties and private get togethers.

So, rather than as an imposition, why not think of these restrictions as an educational shortcut? Seeing almost everything on your street closed might send a stronger message that “this thing must be serious”—and that you’d better stay at home—than anything you may (or may not) hear in the news. Your fear will then prompt you to read up on the virus from the comfort of your home, and your anxiety will gradually turn into rational acceptance of the behavior adjustments required.

As similar restrictions have now been adopted in most of the world, their appeal is clearly not limited to illiberal policymakers. They might constitute an extraordinary crisis measure, but they are also fully consistent with “ordinary” liberal values. During a crisis, ideology is not a nuisance—it is a roadmap.

The liberal case against blanket behavior restrictions

Unlike the cross-ideological appeal of targeted restrictions, the rationale for blanket restrictions is inherently illiberal. Since your mere presence outside (especially if wearing a protective mask) is not a risk factor in and of itself, there is no additional layer of safety that curfews or lockdowns can add to any of the targeted measures listed above. Instead, they are a tacit admission that those measures didn’t work—for liberals, because they weren’t complemented with adequate education; for those advocating stricter measures, because they didn’t go far enough.

Here we arrive at the weakest link in the case for this—and any other—restrictive policy: Restrictions can only achieve so much. Once they shut people in their homes, governments have played their logical endgame. And yet, how can they guarantee that all those people inside won’t be hugging their family members or shaking hands with their next-door neighbors? Blanket restrictions are completely independent from citizens’ knowledge about the crisis. Why get educated if there is already a police officer on the street to order you to go back inside, “or else”? Curfews don’t need you to know if there is a virus, storm, or terrorist attack out there—you just need to know there is a curfew.

By contrast, an educated citizen who takes the necessary precautions can spend hours outside and run little to no risk of getting infected. Critics will say that this ideal-type citizen doesn’t exist (at least not often enough), but even they will submit that—if he or she did exist—this citizen would constitute the only optimal barrier to the virus. Clearly, the debate on curfews and lockdowns is just another classic ideological dispute between the ideal and the realistic, the utopian and the imperfect.

And like in any other ideological clash, liberals will respond that it is their opponents who are being utopian. Bans won’t work if citizens still view the forbidden behavior as the lesser evil. Take a sex worker and a pregnant woman who wants an abortion. Banning these two activities surely adds an important tick in the “reasons against” column on top of any existing reservations either of these women might have about their intended action. But liberals believe that people make decisions by weighing up the pros and cons—rather than by following abstract external proscriptions—and here the pros may well outweigh the cons.

The sex worker might hate her job and dread the risk of getting caught (and then fined or imprisoned), but if it’s the only way she can put food on the table, she might as well take her chances. The pregnant woman might also dread the risk of facing her punishment on top of all the medical risks often associated with an illegal abortion, and yet still do what she believes is the right thing to do with her body: one study has paradoxically counted more abortions in countries where abortion is restricted.

Fundamentally, liberals are interested in the outcomes of their policies. If women are going to have abortions either way, isn’t it better to accept this and ensure that they will survive them? If sex workers are going to be putting themselves at risk anyway, isn’t it wiser to stop pretending otherwise and enable them to report potential harassment without going to jail?

But how does this relate to COVID-19 curfews or lockdowns? Is the urge to walk around freely as strong as the urge to make a living and the urge to have control over your body? It certainly can be. Blanket restrictions can prevent vulnerable population groups from seeking urgent medical help—or from sending others to obtain it for them. These groups are often exempt from the measures, but it is very easy to draw the line in the wrong place—or too late. How do you prove to a police officer that you are sick? And what if you were supposed to have surgery in another city? Can you find another doctor where you live before it’s too late?

And then there are the indirect side effects. Are they comparable to the risk of unsafe abortion and sex workers’ inability to report harassment? They might be. The longer a curfew, the larger the crowds during non-curfew hours, which rapidly increases the otherwise slim chances of infection through accidental close contact. Instead of counting on people to be rational and minimize risk, curfew-friendly governments are inadvertently maximizing it for them.

Moreover, there is an important symbolic consequence. By opting for blanket restrictions, governments erase any faith in our rational capacity to act responsibly vis-à-vis the virus. They are convinced that our behavior will always be irresponsible, so instead of trying to make it (more) responsible by educating us, they are simply reducing it to a few hours a day. But what if this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if citizens start neglecting all precautions when the police aren’t watching?

Finally, how does all this bode for our confidence in our governments? If they don’t trust us to be able to go and buy bread without hugging our neighbors on the way to the bakery, why should we trust them that everything they’re telling us about the virus is true? Of course, we have every reason to believe unreservedly in the destructiveness of COVID-19, but in an age of widespread skepticism towards politicians and experts, is this kind of full-fledged breakdown of trust really that hard to imagine?

Building ideological immunity

Despite some widely circulated warnings to the contrary, curfews and lockdowns aren’t authoritarian measures per se. Popular policies that are for now enjoying solid legitimacy among anxious populations around the world cannot be authoritarian. But they are certainly illiberal.

On the other hand, devising a liberal response to COVID-19 by no means mandates the disastrous “mitigation strategy” that has been attempted—and often subsequently abandoned—by some governments. Being a liberal during a crisis doesn’t—and mustn’t—mean dooming 60 — 70 percent of your population to near-guaranteed infection.

Yet, if ideology matters at all, then it must matter the most when push comes to shove. COVID-19 presents liberals with a choice: They must either apply their regular liberal lenses to an irregular problem or acknowledge that they are not so liberal after all. Resisting blanket restrictions—while at the same time doubling down on information campaigns, targeted measures and testing—might turn into the biggest liberal challenge of our time. An equally important task will be to highlight the cross-ideological nature of much-needed targeted restrictions, which are often unfairly perceived as distinctly illiberal solutions.

Of course, the liberal approach may well prove ineffective. If liberal strategies end up providing weaker results than illiberal ones, liberals might want to revise not only their COVID-19 policy, but also some of their broader assumptions about human nature. But what if it does prove effective? Skeptics might want to acknowledge that we are already saving millions of lives every year just by washing our hands without the “soap police” watching over our shoulders.

By the time it is over, COVID-19 will have taken many things from us. Let’s not add liberalism to the list.

COVID-19HealthTop Stories

Kristijan Fidanovski

Kristijan Fidanovski holds a Master’s Degree in Politics and East European Studies from Georgetown University. He has written for New Eastern Europe and the New Federalist.