The civil liberties threat from COVID-19

March 20, 2020 · 2 min read

Many people I know are worried about erosion of civil liberties from COVID-19. I am too. But many of them are worried about the lockdown in this context. I’m not.

I’m worried about what path we take out of lockdown.

Here’s a scenario to worry about, and be vigilant against:

  1. Testing is ramped up and widely deployed. It starts with antibody testing: anyone who has recovered, with immunity, can move about.

  2. To prove your immune status, you get a card. At first, not many places are asking to see the card. Hospitals, nursing homes. As people start violating isolation, more places ask to see it. Schools. Office buildings. Airports. Theaters.

  3. People start borrowing each other’s cards, skirting the law. One of them starts a local epidemic. In response, the card gets a picture. It’s an ID card now, like your driver’s license. Forging one is a felony. Suddenly we have a national ID card.

  4. More places want to see it. To avoid bottlenecks at every building and vehicle, an electronic scanning system is implemented. Now you are scanning your card everywhere. No card, or no clean bill of health, no entry.

  5. The CDC starts collecting a database of everyone’s movement—for contact tracing, of course, and alerting those at risk. Of course, it doesn’t stay with the CDC. Before long the FBI, CIA, and NSA have access.

  6. If we can track everyone’s movement, and have mechanisms to deny them entry to pretty much anything—why stop at disease? Why not use it to track terrorists? Child molesters?

  7. Someday, a generation from now perhaps, criticizing the government makes you a threat to “public health”.

And like that, the US becomes another authoritarian state.

All of this happens slowly, without much fanfare. The disease eases off gradually, so there’s no point at which we can simply declare the emergency over and end all of this. And having been frightened by one pandemic, everyone wants to be more prepared for the next one. It becomes hard to argue for removing restrictions, just like it’s hard to argue against the TSA. Anyone who tries is accused of endangering the lives of millions of elderly.

Sound farfetched? It basically already exists in at least some parts of China.

Americans would never allow it? Our liberties have already been eroding for generations.

We must be vigilant against this and we must fight it. Cheap, rapid, ubiquitous testing for COVID-19 is good—but as part of a mostly privatized, decentralized response.

We can’t let this turn the US into China.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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