Authority, Liberty, and COVID-19 in the World’s Greatest Democracy

Freedom is a virtue possessed by few but sought by many. While the definition varies, one common interpretation of freedom is the amount of individual responsibility one is endowed by one’s government. Today, during our self-proclaimed Age of Progress, our emphasis on freedom is at an all-time high, and governments are constantly being forced to balance order and individual liberty in their respective nations. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and its subsequent effect on modern society, this dilemma is being reinvigorated and reconsidered as we analyze the varying degrees of success different governments have had in this time of substantial crisis.

The most frequently drawn upon example of a society founded on freedom in modern times is professedly the United States of America. Evidently, the most powerful nation of the past century, the US Bill of Rights guarantees all jurisdiction not endowed to the federal government to be given to individual states. This represents the epitome of a decentralized system of governance. This emphasis on limited federal power is well illustrated in the country’s handling of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Control was given to the states, and respective governors took the responsibility for the task at hand. Each state had a different approach: California was different from Florida, and New York was different from Texas. There were even differences in COVID-19 responses within states as local governments held differing levels of jurisdiction according to the law.

This diversity of opinion is supported by the constitution. The United States was a nation built on individual rights, and that alluded to 50 distinct regional democracies all operating under one executive umbrella. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this meant local and state governments going against the advice of the president, condemning others’ approaches to controlling the pandemic, and even battling amongst each other for crucial medical equipment. While this allowed certain states to implement their own statewide mask mandates and restrictions on gatherings and events, different approaches throughout the country could be contradicted by the fact that Americans were free to travel as they wished within the country. These local and regional variations in procedure represented a most decentralized means of handling the virus in comparison to other nations around the world.

The United States lies in contrast to nations with more centralized governments. China, Canada, and Sri Lanka are a few examples of such entities. China, the nation in which the virus originated, is governed by the Chinese Communist Party, which carries a near-monopoly on political power. The party possesses an extensive amount of power as nearly every aspect of Chinese life is in some way affected by the government. This allowed the party to effectively keep people from leaving their homes, track residents who had the virus, and implement vast measures within the country to reduce its spread. Without worrying about individual propensities or privacy, China approached the virus head-on and with an iron fist.

Canada, the United States’ northern neighbour, also utilized its greater federal authority to help halt the spread of the virus. The Canadian Constitution Act of 1867 denotes that all powers not given exclusively to the provinces be given to the federal government, in order to ensure the “Peace, Order, and good government of Canada.” This provides more centralized authority than the Bill of Rights south of the border. While clearly not authoritarian like the Chinese government, the Canadian federal government was nevertheless granted pronounced precedence over local and regional concerns. What followed was the implementation of COVID-19 tracking software, strict lockdown and quarantine procedures, the discouragement of interprovincial travel, and heavy restrictions on all non-essential activities throughout the country.

Such traits resembling a highly centralized system of governance are also found in the small, island nation of Sri Lanka. Its constitution encourages a presidency comprising of a broad range of executive powers, which recently have further been extended through the passing of a constitutional amendment, in which additional parliamentary responsibilities were transferred to the executive branch. Although not containing the plethora of monetary and technological resources available to the previous two nations, Sri Lanka was still able to implement measures such as an early lockdown, stringent curfews, and high levels of testing. These three countries, albeit different in the amount of power yielded, employed the use of their potent central governments to curb the spread of COVID-19 within their borders.

Each of these countries’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to different outcomes. The most unforeseen outcome, however, was that of the United States. The richest and most powerful nation in the world has made little to no progress against its invisible foe. As of early November 2020, America has recorded over 10,250,000 total cases amongst its nearly 330 million person population, averaging 3,102 cases for every 100,000 residents. While there have been periods of marginal decline, the United States has not been able to flatten its curve. Certain states have experienced a degree of success concerning the spread of the virus. However, most states are facing another increase in both cases and deaths.

Alternatively, China, the nation holding the largest population in the world of nearly 1.4 billion people and containing 102 cities with over one million residents, has only recorded about 86,000 cases to date. This data holds true despite China also housing the epicentre of the virus and recording its first cases in December 2019.

Canada has also not suffered as greatly as the United States, recording a total of 263,000 cases with only 699 cases for every 100,000 Canadian residents. This is impressive, considering Canada and the United States share the world’s longest land border, as well as similar communities and infrastructure. Despite this, Canada has approximately 1,500 fewer cases per 100,000 people than its southern neighbour.

Lastly, Sri Lanka, a nation without the technology, infrastructure, or capital of any of the three aforementioned countries, has seen only about 14,000 cases for its nearly 22 million residents. This implies a rate of only 64 cases for every 100,000 Sri Lankan residents, a number fewer than any other nation in South Asia.

The United States, with its decentralized government, has completely lost the battle against the novel coronavirus. China, Canada, and Sri Lanka, however, with their greater executive authority, have collectively demonstrated that the United States has no excuse for their malpractice. The three nations and their adherence to executive jurisdiction, demonstrated noteworthy abilities to combat the unanticipated crisis while minimizing notions of individual liberty and freedom. Although having no central scheme proved to be a means of success for some states in America, the three nations outside the US proved to the world that authority, when used correctly, trumps individual privilege in times of need.

The three nations are icons of hierarchy and command, while the United States is a champion of natural rights and equality. While this level of authority can allude to abuses of power as well as raised risks for BIPOCs and other marginalized individuals, it will be recorded that in times of disaster such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, society cannot always depend on the future and its avant-garde principles, but sometimes must resort to authority in order to maintain the integrity and composure that, thus far, have allowed for such principles.

Edited by Helia Mokhber.

Photo credits: COVID Memorial Project, Washington, DC, by Ted Eytan, published on September 23rd, 2020, licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0. No changes were made.

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