Freedom of Speech, Pandemics and Human Rights

June 11th 2020

Some countries have responded far more effectively than others to the threat posed by COVID-19. Many could have done better. Not all have had the advantages of New Zealand, where a low number of cases were dealt with by a swift lockdown, and impressive leadership from a democratically elected Prime Minister.

Responses everywhere have encroached to a greater or lesser extent on people’s human rights – most notably on the right to freedom of movement. People have generally understood the huge challenge posed by the virus. On the one hand, there is the need to minimise the spread of the disease and the resultant deaths. On the other, there is the need to minimise the economic damage caused by lockdowns, which in turn leads to unemployment, poverty and an increase in deaths caused by other diseases. This complex challenge has been met effectively in many cases. Some honest mistakes have been made and should be forgiven. However, hindsight will also reveal everything from ineptitude to a tendency to obfuscate, lie and pass the buck.   

Initially, Chinese officials suppressed information about the virus – silencing the doctor who first tried to draw attention to its existence. The President of Brazil ignored the significance of coronavirus and criticised State Governors who wanted to respond much more rapidly. President Putin presided over a government that wildly underestimated the impact of COVID-19 in Russia and issued misleading information about how well prepared the country was. President Trump confused his own administration and the public with his outlandish comments about unproven cures. The British government refused to close incoming flights to the UK in the early stages of the pandemic. It now appears that this was a significant contributor to the spread of the disease. A number of countries are using Track and Trace apps that use personal data to monitor people’s movements and contacts, in a way that could have a lasting impact of civil liberties.

Responses, whether in democracies or in autocratic regimes, have some alarming similarities. Some politicians and officials of every hue have spread false information or been slow to respond or have blatantly flouted their own lockdown rules and allowed an elite to use money and privilege to avoid some of the worst consequences of the pandemic, which has taken the lives of many of their fellow citizens.  

The mistakes and wrongdoing are not confined to authoritarian countries nor are they worse in more liberal societies.

The critical difference between oppressive and more liberal ones is that you are far more likely to know about mistakes and wrongdoing in a liberal democracy than if you live in an oppressive regime. Not only do you know about it, but you have a better chance of being able to do something about it through democratic processes. Most important of all, you have largely unhindered access to the internet, independent information sources, and academic expertise than if you are confined within the borders of countries like China, Russia, or North Korea.

While everyone caught up in this pandemic has had their human rights curtailed, the one right which must be defended at all costs is the right to freedom of thought and speech. Because without that, there can be no comprehensive assessment of what has gone well and what has not. Only then can we all be in a better position to offset the worst consequences of the next pandemic.

Jerry Timmins

Managing Director of GMT Media Ltd

Do not gag free speech
Ideas need to be aired to be addressed