Wednesday 25 March 2020 9:34 am

There’s one way to get our liberty back: Test, test, test

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

Covid-19 has achieved much during its brief reign of terror on this planet thus far.

The virus has physically infected people around the globe, showing that humanity is one family after all. 

Hardly a country in the world stands untouched by its ravages, even if some have been harder hit than others. Such has been the recognition of the need to preserve life at any and all costs that governments have even been ready to sacrifice their economies on the altar of social isolation.  

But this latest pandemic has also proven to have far-reaching spiritual consequences, especially in those societies which have been built around liberal values. Painful decisions have had to be made by Presidents and Prime Ministers — and endorsed by national parliaments — to curtail the freedom of individuals during the outbreak, with compulsory closures of businesses and formal lockdowns having been ordered throughout a swathe of the democratic world.

The free markets that have been the basis of our prosperity hitherto have been fettered. And the awesome power of the state has been unleashed upon economies teetering on the brink of freefall, with the greatest expansion of state spending across the democratic world ever undertaken in peacetime.

Some democracies have, of course, been used to a more than occasional streak of state control in their politics, and others can recall authoritarianism itself within living memory. While not diminishing for one moment the dramatic nature of the curtailment of life as it has been hitherto known, such societies at least have the basis of experience to work with in the current climate.

But the countries of the core Anglosphere occupy a curious divergence. With the exception of the UK during the Second World War (which occurred in the specific context of a conflict over the very future of global liberty), core Anglosphere countries have had precious little experience of the sacrifices necessary to win the current war. 

Perhaps this explains why certain among their number have had seeming greater difficulty than others in instituting the kinds of radical departures we are now witnessing.

Donald Trump is the obvious standout. Having been slow to the coronavirus party in the first instance, the US President has been footdragger-in-chief on the social isolation front, to the visible befuddlement of the gaggle of medical experts who now accompany any western democratic leader to every television camera opportunity. 

Having only recently accepted the basis of the science that human distancing is a necessary evil to stem the spread of the virus, Trump is now mulling the possibilities of the damage to the US economy being more devastating than any damage to US health. Call him brave and principled or foolish and selfish, but the Trump phenomenon will do things his way. And his individualistic nation can judge him on the consequences come November.

Closer to home, it looked for a while as if our own Prime Minister was going to succumb to the liberal temptation. The painful way in which the British government felt its way to the forced lockdown scenario has been presented as a dramatic U-turn, but in reality it had more to do with an instinctive aversion to draconian measures that Boris Johnson himself often ascribed publicly to a reluctance to overturn liberal democratic norms. 

Given the nation we are, and if the epidemiological science allowed some latitude in approach as the government and its experts claimed it did, can Boris really be blamed for having taken every opportunity to avoid curbing our liberty until he definitively needed to?

Of course, the challenge will now be to restore our lost liberty as quickly as possible, but without prejudicing public health in order to do so. Fortunately, there may be a swift halfway house that we — and other lovers of liberty like us — can establish to aid the process.

The head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared last week that “Our key message is: test, test, test”. And for good reason. 

Testing for Covid-19 is not simply one of the necessities for controlling the spread of the infection, by identifying carriers who can then be quarantined and their contacts traced, but also the basis for the recovery of post-coronavirus life. Because if an antidote test can be mass produced and mass tested for, then those who have acquired viral immunity can be released back into normal life, and engaged in economic rebuilding.

This reintegration of course raises its own prospect of the danger of a divided society, with those clutching their certificate of freedom in potentially a very different space to those who never contracted the virus in the first place and for whom restrictions may still be needed. However, on balance, freedom for most until a vaccine is developed will be preferable to freedom for none.  

A swift restoration of liberty is therefore possible. But in that most delicious of ironies, it will require an authoritarian commitment to testing, and the production of testing, by the government to secure.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.