Can Europe Make It?

Covid-19 and the perception of freedom

Criticisms of the “Chinese solution” adopted by Italy have come from both sides, national and international.

Simone Redaelli
4 August 2020, 7.26pm
Italy First demonstrates against “the sanitary dictatorship” of the Government. Rome (Italy), June 20, 2020
Insidefoto/PA. All rights reserved.

At the beginning of this year, the rapid spread of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) prompted most countries to enter a period of lockdown. In Italy – the country where I live – the restrictions are now starting to loosen, and I have started to ask myself: did the confinement measures adopted during the Coronavirus outbreak really deny freedoms for individuals?

Compared with other European countries, Italy adopted the most aggressive policies. For months, people were not allowed to take a walk outside, or to spend time with friends and relatives. Basically, they could leave their apartments only for their own personal sustenance: they could only go to the grocery store, to the hospital and, in some cases, to work. Food, health and money: this is the modern paradigm of sustenance.

Criticisms of the “Chinese solution” adopted by Italy – which was then followed by other countries in Europe – have come from both sides, national and international. Indeed, as comments by Professor Martin J. Bull from the London School of Economics make clear, the main concern was that the lockdown had denied citizens “even the right to fresh air” and went against “the principles of personal liberty and freedom of movement enshrined in the Constitution”. However, as also highlighted in the same blog post, the very Italian constitution allows limitations to freedom in case of emergencies (art. 16).

Thus, the question that needs to be posed publicly is this: are lockdowns a matter of real restrictions to freedom, or is this just a matter of perception?

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Are lockdowns a matter of real restrictions to freedom, or is this just a matter of perception?

Negative and positive liberty

The debate around the “dictatorships” of lockdown policies eventually resulted in some European citizens’ protests, mainly comes from areas of Europe laying claim to democracy: for instance, while Italy is “a democratic republic founded on labour”, Spain and the United Kingdom are still monarchies, but the monarch only holds symbolic power. Given that democracy happens to be the fil rouge connecting these governments, let us define what individual freedoms are in a democratic system.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines freedom as “the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, etc. whatever you want to, without being controlled or limited”. While, at first sight, this description may seem to work well, it does not within the boundaries of democracy. For instance, even if I wanted to, I could not “freely” steal other people’s objects, or thoughts. Even if I wanted to, I could not “freely” insult somebody else. This way of thinking of freedom was formalized by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in 1958, and called “negative liberty” – according to which liberty is “a mere absence of obstacles, barriers, constraints, or interference from others”. But this definition fails to grasp what democratic freedom is.

At this point, someone could argue that freedom is a condition in which individuals are not subject to coercion. In other words, freedom would be “the right not to do, say, think, etc. whatever someone else asks you to do, say, think, etc.”. However, even this proposition loses strength within a democratic context. For instance, even if I wanted to, based on the Italian constitution (art. 34), I could not avoid receiving primary education at school. When I was born, my parents had to officially report my birth to Italian institutions. Democracies are grounded in inescapable obligations.

The definition of democratic freedom is instead founded on the assumption that “a citizen’s freedom ends, where another citizen’s freedom begins”. In effect, this definition reflects a political and civic reality in which, given the limitations of negative liberty – we cannot steal, we cannot disrespect – citizens have at least the right of self-determination and self-realization. This is what Isaiah Berlin called “positive liberty” – which is the presence of “control and self-mastery”, the faculty of being in charge of your life.

Here the pandemic takes over and, suddenly, Italian citizens cannot meet their friends or take a walk any more: they cannot determine their own independent way of living. If the lockdown measures were to be pictured as strong limitations of citizens’ positive liberty, this would be undemocratic.

This vision however, shows a lack of knowledge about how the Coronavirus pandemic works. As I have described elsewhere, Covid-19 is characterized by symptoms common to other diseases, such as dry cough and fatigue, which are not distinctive of the pathology. Even more importantly, contagious people can be asymptomatic. Thus, by definition, every single individual on earth is potentially already infected and for the sole reason that they are breathing beings – they are also a mortal threat to all other individuals. In light of this scenario, lockdowns are not denying positive liberty, but rather are the highest possible form of limitation on negative liberty.

Right to life

In simple terms, walking down the street and, accidentally or intentionally, bumping into someone else is already a formal violation of the definition of democratic freedom. The Covid-19 era is a historic moment in which, according to how democracy is formulated, the sole freedom allowed is the one “to survive”, is the one “to biologically persist”. The right to life is indeed well-recapitulated by several articles of the Italian constitution, including art. 13, 27 and 32. It is truly democratic.

Instead of blaming the institutions, media and citizens should understand that what they call “freedom” is an elastic concept, whose edges, especially in democratic terms, are really flexible. In pandemic times, such edges may eventually be taken to the extreme.

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