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Beyond binaries in COVID-19 discussions

  • 20 April 2020

The current COVID-19 lockdowns raise an important issue — what is government for and how much power does it need to do it?

The excellent BBC documentary Power of Nightmares, made shortly after 9/11 opened with the suggestion that governments, having abandoned the contest of ideologies in favour of neoliberalism, could now only promise people ‘security’. Hence the need to remind people perpetually of the danger posed by ‘terror’ and urge surrender of liberty as the price of ‘protection’. Despite the fact that most perpetrators of ‘terror attacks’ were ‘known to security services’ beforehand, the narrative was always that more power to detect terrorists (and less privacy) was required to stop the next bomber before it was too late.

COVID-19, however, changes the story a bit. States which have starved their health systems for years are now finding these inadequate resources overwhelmed by a virus which is not deterred by airport security, detention without trial or mass surveillance and where even Australia’s ‘Stop the Boats’ theme-song of cruelty to refugees falters when it comes to multimillion dollar cruise-ships.

The question remains, however, is there a straight binary trade-off between granting the state power (to organise lock-downs, track its populace and coerce the people) and keeping its people safe?

Many (both for and against an interventionist state) argue this way. For example, some note that at least the more authoritarian governments, which imposed draconian lock-downs backed by armed force, have preserved their people from the worst effects of the virus and the massive death-tolls seen elsewhere.

So are we stuck between a dichotomy of individual freedom (and soaring sickness and death) and a brutal state crackdown which disrupts lives? Ironically, even outlets which cheer for state surveillance in other areas are now adopting libertarian rhetoric — arguing that we need to loosen the state’s grip (and let more people die) in order to save ‘the economy’. The article in Australian Financial Review asking whether older people’s lives are worth as much as those who are decades younger is a particularly stark example.


'Surely, however, it is not beyond our wit to imagine a relationship between government and people which is not limited to such a cruel liberty/oppression dichotomy.'  

Even the government has made clear, in passing its Jobkeepers support package, that its restrictions on liberty are designed to protect the economy (’to keep Australians in jobs’) and that certain people (especially temporary and education sector workers, people