It’s been nearly 12 months since the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Australia, and more than nine months since the Australian Government introduced nationwide restrictions in response to the global pandemic.
While unprecedented measures like nightly curfews, travel restrictions and the closure of certain types of businesses have been put in place at various times throughout the year to protect the public, the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods has been staggering, with some questioning whether the restrictions on people's civil liberties have gone too far.
So, we put the question to UQ experts across a range of disciplines: how far should the Australian and state governments go in restricting people’s freedoms in the name of public health?
School of Psychology
Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences
For a number of reasons, the answer to this question should be straightforward: very far.
When governments introduce laws to guide citizens’ behaviour, there will always be critics who argue the law is an infringement upon ‘individual freedom of choice’. The COVID-19 crisis is no exception.
However, in this instance, for at least two reasons, it would seem easy to rebut such concerns and to defend more heavy-handed interventions.
First, we have to be mindful not to introduce a false dichotomy: do we want freedom or health? After all, a COVID-19-infected individual will not be able to reap the benefits of their freedom of choice. And, those fortunate enough to remain healthy will be equally unable to enjoy their freedom in a society brought to a standstill by a pandemic. There is no freedom without health, and it is only by staying healthy that people can have freedoms.
Second, it is worth considering that we have long accepted that governments can curb our individual freedom in order to protect us individually and collectively. For example, we unthinkingly stop for a red traffic light and accept government fire bans during bushfire season. Why do we comply with these restrictions? All these rules limit freedoms but we also unquestioningly accept that they are in place to protect not just the individual, but also the community at large from harm; from traffic casualties or bushfires. So, how is imposing restrictions on people’s behaviour so that we are in a better position to combat one of the biggest threats of our time any different?
As government officials have repeatedly pointed out, the COVID-19 restrictions are introduced to save lives — not just our own but also that of others.
This alone would seem a sufficient reason for Australian governments to go as far as necessary to protect us.
Centre for the Business and Economics of Health
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law
Policies restricting individual freedom are acceptable only where significant reductions in risk of infection in the population are expected to follow and hence the health of all Australians protected.
Events leading to avoidable community transmission (Melbourne’s hotel quarantine fiasco, individuals from hotspots avoiding quarantine in Queensland) provide evidence of government failure. This undermines restricting everyone’s freedom because the public’s sacrifice does not provide the increased protection promised by our political leaders. No amount of social distancing in Melbourne is effective if the government fails to regulate security arrangements under hotel quarantine contracts.
Entry-to-Queensland restrictions on people from hotspots were not effective and border closures were reimposed because the ‘reward’ for honesty was a $2800 bill for a 14-day hotel quarantine. The police had no means of verifying entrants’ claims. Lying avoided a large cost to the individual but imposed increased risks of harm on others.
School of Public Health
Faculty of Medicine
There is a social contract in representative democracies that governments have the power to restrict individual freedoms to protect the public's health, with citizens trusting their elected representatives to use whatever means are necessary but not to abuse these powers.
In a pandemic, the state therefore has the right and obligation to put in place the necessary measures to reduce and interrupt transmission to protect individuals and society.
The interventions need to be informed by public health experts with the most accurate and up-to-date information. It is critical that governments clearly and regularly communicate to their citizens what needs to be done and why, so that individuals and communities understand and accept the restrictions and act accordingly.
No-one should be seen to be exempt. And as the pandemic threat is controlled, citizens must continue to modify their behaviour until elimination has been achieved, or a vaccine can protect the whole population.
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law
Governments are vested with incredible powers that infiltrate most aspects of our daily lives. Getting it right when it comes to protecting safety, security and liberty is no easy task, but our constitutional frameworks and values have evolved with this in mind.
While governments have (and need and must exercise) invasive powers, legal measures used to fight COVID-19 should be carefully scrutinised against some basic principles.
Each measure should be:
- Necessary – Is it justified? Tailored to a legitimate aim? Effective?
- Proportionate – Has a balance been struck between infringements on liberty and potential benefits to public health?
- Reviewed – We are witnessing how difficult it can be to assess necessity and proportionality. Measures should be regularly reviewed against these standards by decision-makers who are both independent and suitably qualified. Effective review also calls for a willingness to reform ineffective or disproportionate measures.
- Time-limited – Extreme threats may call for extreme responses. But when the threat has passed, the measures must be allowed to lapse. Otherwise, extreme measures may normalise, spread to other areas of law and policy, and justify new extremes. For example, since September 11, Australia has introduced more counter-terror laws than any other nation. Despite some measures being of unproven effectiveness, they remain on the statute books.
- Constitutional – COVID-19 demands severe action that will restrict freedom. But it must not be allowed to erode the core values that underpin our system: openness, accountability, a separation (not concentration) of powers, fairness, non-discrimination, the rule of law, and a basic commitment to equality and liberty.
School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Protests against COVID-19 restrictions are couched in terms of restricting individual freedoms. However, as the restrictions are to protect public health, should the debate, instead, focus on social responsibility to prevent the spread of communicable diseases?
This question highlights the tensions between the scope of public health practice and policy and the acceptance of measures taken to minimise the levels of spread and severity of the virus.
The harm principle, articulated by John Stuart Mill, holds that the actions of individuals should be limited only to prevent harm to other individuals. In other words, we have the freedom to do everything that injures no one, so that all citizens can enjoy the same rights.
In this sense, government steps to prevent threats to public health – provided they are not a pretext to curtail rights when public health is no longer at risk – should not be seen as restrictions to freedom, but as necessary to serve the common good.
Institute for Social Science Research
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Fundamental to human nature is the desire to make choices about what we do and to influence those around us. Across the life course, the degree to which we have individual freedom affects our wellbeing and capacity for achievement. But human lives are not solitary; they are social. Our individual wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of those around us.
While restricting individual freedom has a high human cost, the loss of others who are important to us does also.
The restrictions imposed on our individual freedom by government responses to COVID-19 are necessary to protect all of society. While there is a risk to public health, no-one is actually free. Some may be more vulnerable than others, but we are all vulnerable.
We do not know how long COVID-19 will place restrictions on our individual freedom, but there are two important features of human psychology that will carry us through.
The first is that humans have huge capacity for resilience. Historical examples of prior pandemics, war and the holocaust show individuals survive significant restriction on, or denial of, their rights.
The second is that humans have huge capacity for innovation. During restrictions there have been many everyday examples of individuals innovating, discovering new interests – and rediscovering old.
The pandemic has shone a light on some social inequities and maybe presents an opportunity for social reform.