COVID-19 and the right to remain liberal

I’m restless. Although I’m not complaining. I am one of the fortunate ones in good health, confined and duly awaiting my physical and mental liberation. At home, the media frenzy around COVID-19 is inescapable. It’s all very confusing.

I am told that COVID 19 marks the end of liberal ideology. As a liberal, my beliefs are being tested on a daily basis. Closing borders comfort the Brexiteers who relish the return of self-isolation and inward nationalism. As for the environment, all the cataclysms announced by journalist David Wallace in his brilliant book The Uninhabitable Earth, (plagues, heat death, hunger, wildfire, unbreathable air, economic collapse, dying oceans, climate conflict and mass migrations) are nanoseconds away from striking. And then, we’re witnessing an unparalleled level of state-support for businesses and workers. Robust public services are the top priority for all western liberal economies.

So where do my beliefs fit in? I am not seeking to confirm any rigid assumptions, but my principles must somehow be a key piece of this ideological puzzle!

Here goes. The historical achievements of political liberalism is what is impacting people’s daily morale during this lockdown. The freedom to make your own individual choices about how to spend your day. Freedom of movement. Freedom of association. Freedom to travel. Freedom to work. Freedom to go to school and to be educated. Freedom to socialize with friends. Or even the freedom to stay at home—but by choice, not constraint. Let’s not forget that these liberties took hundreds of years to consolidate. Sadly nothing can be taken for granted in 2020.

It will be even more important to defend these freedoms after COVID19. Many states are using the pandemic to suppress or deprive citizens’ rights. For example, there is an increase of: surveillance of citizens via mobile phone applications or data (China, Russia,), arrests of political dissidents (Bolivia, Philippines, Uganda, Venezuela), blockades of websites and denial of freedom of opinion and expression (Cambodia, Serbia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates) while others strengthen their executive powers and erode the democratic process (Hungary, Poland). For more info, the Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect all civil freedoms and human rights across the globe.

And then there’s economic liberalism. The devil itself.

Those who oppose globalisation are quick to point out that COVID-19 would not have occurred, had the planet been less interdependent. Of course, less mobility would have slowed down the transmission of the disease. Our economic woes would not be so closely tied to the misfortunes of others.

Globalization did accelerate the calamity of the pandemic, but is also part of the solution to eradicate it. We have no chance of curing this disease or finding a vaccine without scientific research and international collaboration. A good resource is the data is shared daily by the World Health Organisation for experts.

Unprepared states (mainly western democracies, at this stage) have access to trade for sorely-needed emergency medical equipment.

One of the lessons learnt is that we must not rely on China in the future, for purchasing essential materials (such as face masks) in times of acute crisis; we need to be more self-sufficient, both at national and regional levels for health purposes. Our supply chain must break free from the cycle of Chinese manufacturing, often at odds with our standards .

“Going regional” in several sectors will support our healthcare, economy, environment and society. Strengthening regional trade is a responsible model of economic growth. Going local for food supplies, is also a good idea too.

But enhancing domestic abilities does not meaning living in autarky– which even the arch-nemesis of liberal democracies, North Korea, doesn’t strictly apply. We need to pool our regional resources with like-minded countries, to rely on each other’s political stability, complementarity of goods, common standards and shared values. Oh, that sounds familiar. A bit like the single market of the European Union, no?

Brexit has set us back decades. As The Guardian said, the scale of the coronavirus exposes how pointless the Brexit cause is. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if the timing of events had been reversed- and if the pandemic had hit Britain before the Brexit referendum.

Joelle Fiss is a human rights researcher and liberal member of the Geneva Parliament. She is both British and Swiss.

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