Liberty or Health: Covid-19 is Pushing the World to Make a Hard Choice

BY ABDULLAH TIJANI

The governments of the world have resorted into many urgent measures in containing the spread of Covid-19 epidemic in their country. One of the most popular measures is the restriction to liberty: governments are imposing lockdown within and forbidden entry into the country, the masses are asked to stay at home in the security of their health and that of their neighbours, markets are closed and even in some countries, trading is now a sin. All these are direct infringements on freedom of movement and right of citizens to make a living. But the measures, as the government claimed, are in the name of curbing the spread of the virus. Therefore, in the unfortunate long run, the people are pursued to the edge where they are forced to choose between liberty and health.

It is generally accepted that the civil rights of a citizen are inherent and ought to be respected at all time. It is also paramount to understand that right to liberty gives an individual the freedom to be independent, not only political and economic but also the right to independent reasoning — right to decide by and for himself. The onus as to when and why an individual is not entitled to exercise his freedom is on the one who is trying to take the freedom away. Therefore, even if it will be justifiable for the government to restrict some movements and ban trading to protect the country, by reasoning, it will be unjustifiable for them to inflict suffering on an individual who is willing to sacrifice some of his rights for the benefits of the community.

Majority of the people who can no longer move around lives from hand to mouth, it is difficult for some to have three-square-meal a day, and to feed their hungry stomach in this lockdown will be impossible. These people have sacrificed so much, but they can not, and there is no possibility that they will be willing, by reasoning, to suffer for the benefit of all. If danger is looming outside and a man runs into his house in hot pursuit just to be surprised to meet a greater danger waiting inside, sometimes, it is better to die where one will be quickly noticed, and shout for help. This is the case of a person who does not have what to eat and was asked to stay at home. When this happens, civil disobedience is inevitable because people are due to go out and fend for their livelihood. And this may not go down well with the government.

As it turns out, only a few governments, even the ones with the popular democracy, can peacefully manage civil disobedience. The response of the government through its law enforcement agencies towards this is not always democratic. When this type of civil disobedience happens, the government tends to impose forceful compliance which, undoubtedly, adds feather to epaulettes of some stern law enforcer who abuses criminal law that gives them power.
In Nigeria for instance, the law enforcement officers killed 18 people who had floated the restriction to fend for their daily foods, more people compared to 11 recorded Covid-19 deaths at the time. At the same time, through its mobile court, the Nigerian government is prosecuting and fining those who disobey the order. Essentially, the measure of taking away people’s liberty in order to contain the pandemic may be ineffective, unless by forceful compliance which willing inevitably result in chaos and death.

What we will make people obey the stay-at-home order, as we know it, is that the government — the institution taking away freedom of movement — provides the people with what will make them sustainable in the name of palliative. Unfortunately, however, it is almost impossible for a government in a country like Nigeria of over 200 million population, and where up to 80 million live below the poverty line — almost half of the population — to provide their economic needs.

The alternative to all these uncalled conundrums will be when private groups and individuals who are well off taking the responsibility of providing for their immediate community. These private individuals own businesses and thus badly affected by the outbreak. So, the probability that they will be willing to volunteer is the probability that the quicker the pandemic is contained, the quicker their business will get back on the track. But this kind of action will be swift, and the private individual or group will commit unwavering willingness when it is known that not only is the government unable to give palliative but also incapable. No individual will find it easy to donate his hard-earned money when the government is reserving its own for the public officers, or on the long run embezzled by the corrupt principal officers.

Again, while it is not easy for a citizen to sacrifice his freedom, spontaneity trust can inadvertently build government-citizen cooperation. The trust that while the government locked down everywhere, it is doing its very best to let everything come back to normal at the soonest possible time. This can also serve as incentives that will let people want to voluntarily abide by the restriction imposed, and endure the suffering knowing it will soon be over.

The world should ordinarily not have arrived at that junction where the people will have to choose between liberty and health, as the former is as important as the later; unfortunately when it does, like the present case, only voluntary cooperation coupled with sincere private intervention can drag the sickening world out of its sinking boat. If not, the citizen may have more than liberty to sacrifice, and when this happens, the government cannot also escape having its legitimacy questioned.

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