Justice’s scales: Civil Liberties and the Covid

Summary: In a pandemic some rights are more equal than others

John Rawls, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, argued that a key principle for a fair society is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberties for all.”

In other words, no one is an island. The rights that each of us have can impinge on those of others. So rights need to be calibrated accordingly. Priti Patel may not grasp this most basic fact of social living and instead feel that freedom means that racists should be allowed to abuse anti-racist protesters if their prejudices so incline them. But then she is a complete moron desperate to be accepted by the Blackshirted establishment she seeks to serve.

So, as all but the most deliberately obtuse understand, the inter-relationships of people in society means that we have not only rights but responsibilities towards each other.

Which brings us to the questions of measures to control the Covid. It’s not wrong to conduct this debate in the context of civil liberties. But it is nonsensical to proceed as if all rights are equal and absolute. No one has an absolute right to do as they please irrespective of how passionately they feel about their particular hobby horse. The sociopath may feel he should be allowed to drink and drive at whatever speed he likes, ignoring traffic lights if they inconvenience him. But the rest of us whose lives he would threaten would likely object. The right to life supersedes other rights after all.

So, in the context of the Covid the proper debate should relate to which liberties may of necessity be temporarily restricted in order to protect that paramount right to life.

The requirement to wear masks in restricted spaces is so trivial an inconvenience that it beggars belief that it should become a matter of dispute. But it has been allowed to become so. The question of vaccine “passports” seems set to follow a similar path.

As anyone who has ever travelled in the Tropics will know vaccine “passports” are already a fact of life: there are many places you simply cannot go without your Yellow Fever certificate. Proof of Covid vaccination is now a fact of travel within Europe. In parts of mainland Europe health inspectors will check that diners in indoor venues have proof of Covid vaccination. Democratic norms are still much healthier there than in the UK which seems to have gotten into a ridiculous debate that such measures would impinge on the most basic of rights of Little England and its Brexiters.

As anyone who has ever led in a public health emergency will know, such a task requires hard choices and pragmatism.The decisions that may be necessary do not represent unalterable precedents. But they do represent fundamental responsibilities to preserve life where possible and ensure that others live another day.

As British politics becomes increasingly infantile, losing sight of this principle in a welter of doctrinal disputation relating to some nirvana of individual liberties will lead to the country becoming an even greater international laughing stock than it already is. But whatever grim mirth may be prompted by a UK refusal in the name of “civil liberties” to apply essential public health measures to stem a pandemic, this will never salve the grieving of those who have had to bury the needlessly dead.

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