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Too much of anything is always bad

| Monday, August 17, 2020

It is a foregone conclusion that the ongoing pandemic has fundamentally disrupted our ways of life. Yet we don’t seem to be actively thinking about the reverse; how have our ways of life, individually and collectively as a society, affected our experience of the pandemic? In particular, whereas a lot has been said about the impact of the coronavirus on democracy, very little has been said on the impact of democracy on how countries have experienced this global phenomenon.

The United States Global Leadership Coalition has belabored the long-term effects on democracy of the tough measures instituted by governments across the world to slow the spread of the virus. But how much regard must be accorded to personal freedoms under such unusual circumstances as we find ourselves in? It seems rather axiomatic that in the present circumstances, temporary inconveniences for long-term benefits is perfectly reasonable. In any case, one cannot enjoy their personal freedoms if one is not alive. Indeed, international human rights law has a provision for states to appropriate themselves extraordinary powers under unusual circumstances. At its heart, this discussion is one about how a country’s culture of governance has influenced the respective government’s response to the pandemic and the attendant consequences of that response. And while these are important questions, such outward looking, self-indulgent analysis has denied us the opportunity to reflect on how America’s cherished democratic tradition of personal freedoms and individual liberties has shaped the government’s response to the pandemic as well as the effectiveness of that response.

Across the world, countries that have managed to get ahead of the virus have had to put in place some tough, mandatory restrictions on the lives of their citizens. In most cases, these came with penalties for violation. Yet these restrictions on their own were not enough. For the restrictions to be effective, it was imperative that citizens in those countries abide by the restrictions for the most part. Holding all other factors such as information flow constant, it is quite obvious that the governance culture of a society is a key determinant of how citizens respond to the restrictions imposed in their lives by the government, and in turn the overall effectiveness of a government’s response. It is plausible that people in societies with a weaker democratic culture are more likely to adhere to government restrictions than people in societies with a stronger democratic culture. If that is true, then countries with weaker democratic cultures should have more effective responses to the pandemic than countries with a stronger democratic culture. Take for instance African countries where democracy is still taking root. For the most part, African governments instituted swift, total lockdowns, and populations responded positively to these measures, rendering them effective. As a result, contrary to the fatalistic projections by world health experts — with the exception of South Africa — Africa has registered lower infections and less deaths, lower testing notwithstanding.

Enter the United States. Like elsewhere in the world, authorities in the United States — both at state and federal levels — issued guidelines and put in place some restrictions intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Indeed, 48 out of 50 states declared states of emergency at some point during the pandemic. Moreover, throughout the pandemic President Trump has touted America’s testing as superior to any other country. Yet, America’s experience with COVID-19 has been a catastrophic one. To date, more than 165,000 lives in the United States have been lost to the coronavirus, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard. That is over 50,000 more than the number of American lives lost during World War I. While there are several reasons that one can use to explain America’s catastrophic response to the outbreak of the virus, it is plausible that America’s cherished democratic tradition has significantly affected the effectiveness of America’s response.

Owing to an entrenched culture of personal freedoms and individual liberties, it was difficult for authorities to enforce tough restrictions necessary to slow the spread of the virus. At the same time, it was difficult for a considerable number of Americans to abide by the temporary inconveniences to their lives even for their own sake and the sake of their fellow citizens. As such, the effectiveness of America’s COVID-19 response was undermined by weak enforcement on the authorities’ part, and less than ideal adherence on the citizens’ part. Little wonder then that as citizens in other countries observed very restrictive stay-at-home directives, many Americans were in the streets protesting against shelter-in-place measures intended to keep them safe. Hordes of Americans continued to flock to beaches in Florida, even as the coronavirus ravaged the country. And now as Notre Dame experiments with in-person instruction while the coronavirus threat is still very existent, is it unsurprising that some of our fellow students, with regard only to their pleasure, continue to defy safety guidelines, putting us all at risk in the process. This open defiance to safety guidelines — born out of a culture of an addiction to personal freedoms and individual liberties — continues to make the effective implementation of control measures difficult both here at Notre Dame and in the country at large.

Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in Economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda and lives off campus. He is a DJ in his other life and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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