Let My People Go (Outside)! Reasonable Steps to Prevent Corona

Over the past month, COVID-19 has wrecked havoc throughout every corner of the globe. 

Governments, despite ample warning, approached the pandemic like a mediocre college student tasked with an in-class presentation. Put it off, put it off, and then wing it. After ignoring the problem long enough for it to metastasize, governments are firmly in the “wing it” stage, grasping at straws by enforcing radical measures like detention centers, city-wide lockdowns, and mass surveillance. 

The stated reasoning behind such rules is to save lives but are there better ways to fight COVID-19 that infringe less on our civil liberties? 

Let’s go through the current measures enforced in Israel:

  • Travelers arriving from countries deemed to be coronavirus hotspots are whisked into a government-run detention center.  
  • A Shin-Bet mass-surveillance program that tracks alleged carriers of the virus.
  • City-wide lockdowns that prohibit all movement with the exception of short trips for work, food, medicine, and other essentials. 

I’d like to propose some viable alternatives that don’t involve Orwellian procedures:

  • End the blanket use of detention centers. When an individual is suspected of committing a crime, the first response isn’t to immediately send said person to jail. Instead the risk the person represents to the community is evaluated, and if the risk isn’t too high,  the individual is released on bail. By having to post bail, suspected criminals are incentivized not to flee or commit other crimes. The institution of bail allows individuals to stay out of jail while still providing protection to the general public. Instead of detaining all individuals suspected of having coronavirus in quarantine centers, it would be better to evaluate on a case by case basis and release individuals deemed able to avoid infecting others to home quarantine if they are able to post bail. 
  • Increase use of the HaMagen app. Despite the inadequate leadership from up top, the Ministry of Health, with the help of the private sector, was able to develop an app that can detect whether citizens have come into contact with a coronavirus carrier. Unlike the Shin-Bet’s program, HaMagen uses open source software, alleviating fears of mass government snooping. 
  • Suspend draconian prohibitions on free movement. The rationale of prohibiting individuals from going outside is that being in close proximity to others is dangerous, and being unable to go outside prevents individuals from being in close proximity to each other. But preventing the general population from going outside is an extremely blunt instrument and renders harmless activities like going on a run or taking your dog to the park illegal. There should be an increased emphasis on rules which actually prevent the spread of coronavirus: requiring those in public to wear masks, maintaining distance from others, and prohibiting large groups to congregate. Think of going outside like driving a car, a dangerous activity with massive benefits.  Vehicles are inherently dangerous machines and cause many deaths. But we don’t outlaw the use of cars across the board or only allow their use for very specific tasks. Instead, we educate drivers how to use vehicles properly, force them to demonstrate that they are capable of driving in a responsible manner, and penalize those who violate the rules by revoking driving privileges and imposing other sanctions. Instead of a blanket prohibition on going outside, the state ought to educate the populace on how to behave safely outdoors, issue licenses to those who demonstrate the ability to go outside safely, and prevent only those incapable of doing so from going outside.

The massive violation of our civil liberties is unnecessary, not because the draconian measures aren’t capable of preventing the spread of coronavirus, but because better methods exist which don’t require the government to be as heavy-handed.

About the Author
Erez Cramer is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.
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