Amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic that has overtaken the last two years have been waves of change in sectors including the economy, healthcare, mandates and political guidelines. This shift worldwide has created ideals of liberalism and globalisation being challenged or reimagined to accommodate the after-effects of the virus and its restrictions on normal life.
Liberalism is the philosophy that espouses equality before the law, consent of the population and liberty for all. It’s natural that it would be challenged since it places freedom at the top of all life purposes, but freedom being restricted is the only way that the pandemic can be stopped from spreading through human contact. On the economic side, expectedly, the pandemic led to severe drops in value, employment and a worldwide recession. Countries worldwide have asked for massive government intervention issuing stimulus checks, relief packages, tax holidays and funds for those whose livelihoods have been compromised, with a sort of welfare state dominating policy against the liberal idea of free-market and non-intervention, even in capitalistic powerhouses like the USA. It has severely increased inflation in countries and has led to protests by business owners against lockdowns due to losses faced. However, this socialist sentiment is not exclusive to post-pandemic revival, since arguments about equality of access to resources or universal basic income have surged to safeguard the disproportionately affected communities in the future.
This extends even to economic developments regarding test providers and vaccinations, with some countries applying privatised processes and others going for centralisation. In the UK, Boris Johnson credited “capitalism” or “greed” for the success of vaccine production, claiming that the competition for profits by big pharmaceutical companies underlined their success. That holds valid to an extent, but the process of research and development was highly funded by government subsidies, investments and even universities’ labs rather than private funds alone. Within privatised healthcare, inequalities were seen in the provision of care to large populations. For example in India, less than 10% of Covid-19 cases were handled by the private sector despite their state-of-the-art infrastructure and capacities, due to their high rates, and this led to public hospitals with weak infrastructure and understaffing bearing the brunt. This was heightened during the second wave since public healthcare was underfunded to provide for even the required resources. Additionally, private providers did not keep any surplus as it would be an additional cost cut from their profit motive, which also led to severe bed and oxygen shortages, and is partly why private healthcare has increased morbidity and mortality across countries.
Another ugly side of this was seen in the patenting of vaccines, which allowed big pharmaceutical companies to record rocket high profits at the cost of countries that could’ve saved thousands of lives had they got access to these patents. These failures certainly point to the importance of not completely privatising the health care sector, but a limited proportion being in private hands will smoothen the infrastructure and research while allowing the government enough provisionary role to overcome the shortcomings mentioned.
The debate of personal freedoms extended to the worldwide restrictions of lockdowns, masks and later vaccinations. The libertarians and conservatives in many countries strongly argued that imposing social distancing and forcing people to wear masks was infringing upon personal liberty. One opposing argument insists that saving people from the virus is the “greater good” per se and that for this end most means are justified. Such strong anti-restriction protests have remained largely in the West since Asian countries like Singapore, China, Japan, etc. have historically believed in the greater good, evident from how they abandoned civil liberties for economic growth in their nation-building processes. But if social distancing is to be enforced, where does one draw the line?
The more restricted the social interaction, the safer, but keeping full lockdowns for long is not practical economically or politically. Ethically, it needs to be decided what level of risk is optimal to be taken while reopening in a limited capacity, and whether it should be comparable to other catastrophes like car accidents. Then comes the talk of vaccines which pose a health risk, however minute, bringing up the question of whether they should be mandated or made into passports. Ethically mandating it uses people as a means to an end of safety without considering the individual’s wishes, and Immanuel Kant’s philosophy would call that immoral. However, passing on the disease to others without their consent and without taking precautions could theoretically also count as using them as the means to one’s own “freedom”, in which case it becomes a conflict of wishes.
A related but supporting view can be seen referencing Mill himself, that in this case since one’s liberty will infringe several others’ liberties due to the health risk lack of masks or lockdowns poses, then restrictions can be considered safely liberal even if autocratic, which is why many liberals are supporting such restrictions. The anti-lockdown groups even cited research regarding how lockdowns and masks aren’t 100% effective and Covid-19 had a fatality rate below 2%, so they believed it’s not worth installing protections severely. But traffic rules and signals are instances where liberty is infringed for safety as a greater good, and because the violation puts the liberty of others in danger. Freedom becomes not the non-interference of the government, but the protection of liberties in a cooperative society. Anti-liberty policies are then not focused on the actions, but on the intention and potential of the actions, and the uncertainty that surrounds them. When it comes to vaccine passports, libertarians again claim it as an infringement on liberties. But the fact is that certain vaccinations have always been demanded for activities like flying, education, etc. Then what difference does an additional one make? Forcing institutions to be in danger to serve the maskless infringes on their liberty in the same way. Restrictions for safety can exist in the same way they do in airplanes or amusement parks to avail their service. This does not have to be completely rigid though, as emergencies or even important situations should allow exceptions for providing services to people despite their vaccination status, especially heightened in areas with low access to vaccines because then their refusal results from lack of access..
Political theory in the past has deeply revolved around contracts being used as a way to offer some rights in exchange for coexistence and attaining other goals. John Locke’s social contract theory can be applied as masks can be considered a similar civic offering, or a duty for living safely in a society that is cohesive rather than barbaric. The longstanding question that comes here is the duty of one citizen to another, as a civic obligation, and the answer should include protection from a pandemic. Yet to what extent is coexistence required to make one follow a certain set of rules and protections needs to be decided. It can be argued that citizens should give up more liberties to protect others from communal misfortunes like the flu or poverty during a recession, since if the line is drawn at Covid-19, it should be based on how harmful the effects are in terms of intensity, contagiousness and duration.
Apart from business owners’ protests about their losses, political turmoil has been seen with protests against masks and vaccine mandates as well, using the liberty arguments mentioned earlier. This has been surrounded by debates, othering and virtue-signalling across the spectrum, and experts’ opinions being dismissed often by alternate beliefs. Those who wear masks and follow guidelines have been outraging against the anti-maskers or the anti-vaxxers. Here the debate ensues on the consequences – firstly, it leads to more polarisation and divide, but if this signaling can increase prevention then it brings about a positive result which is justified. In both cases, however, it appears that the political spirit of community is a strong one to instill if the desired result is people taking precautions to protect each other.
The third component, globalisation, is the process of interaction and integration among people, companies and governments worldwide. With all the technological and economic developments, globalisation had been a rapidly increasing reality in the past few decades. But it had seen a slowdown due to the 2008 Financial Crisis affecting funds and the lack of regulated support and now has suffered a major setback due to international travel repeatedly being shut, then opened and then shut again during the pandemic.
Globalisation has been the catalyst for the spread of the virus between countries. it also highlighted the inequality between nations as they took the “Nation First” approach, like America’s vaccine patents and India’s Atmanirbharta or self-reliance policy. Some nations produced their own vaccines like India, UK, USA, Russia, China, while non-producing powerful ones used their influence to acquire them. It was the developing world that was left begging. Naturally, the vaccine inequalities have been profound – the USA used more COVID shots than the 173 least vaccinated countries all combined. But even here, passing around aid and vaccines did depend strongly on globalisation and foreign relations, with one example being how India received aid in the form of oxygen concentrators in the deadly second wave of severe shortages. Even during a major decline, the importance of globalisation was experienced, and it points to signs that the flaw is not in the principal, but in the lack of contingency plans to protect from overdependence and from inequalities in the power and access to resources. It then emerges that vigilant tracking of travel and a greater stake and crisis insurance for the developing world can smoothen the hindrances that occur.
While the move to welfare state policies for the economy may last only till the economic effects of the pandemic are resolved, the sentiment will expand among those who saw the sufferings during this time. Globalisation will pick up pace once again since it has become a necessity, but with a guarded approach for maintaining the contingency of nations. Masks and vaccines might not hinder actual liberty, but as a whole, it does not appear that the political turmoil around them will end anytime soon.
Author bio: Aryan Malhotra, a rising second-year, is passionate about economics, philosophy, new creative ideas, and methods of self-expression.