Democratic nations are embracing strict and invasive government powers to combat the coronavirus, sparking concerns that all that amassed power may not be given back after the pandemic is over.
Lawmakers and civil rights watchdogs are worried that expanded government powers, while maybe necessary to slow the coronavirus, will become permanent fixtures after the pandemic is dealt with, according to The Washington Post. Restrictions around the world have ranged from closing businesses and public places to postponing elections and tapping into cell phone tracking data.
In the United States, the watchdog group Human Rights Watch compared the potential for civil rights abuses over the coronavirus to steps taken after 9-11 to combat terrorism.
“September 11th is the appropriate analogy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “We had a fearful public that was willing to countenance a government that was taking steps that undermined civil rights and were difficult to reverse over a long time.”
The Trump administration is considering building a federal database to track COVID-19 cases by compiling personal healthcare data that is in the hands of private companies. The administration has already reached out to several firms about the possibility, Juvare CEO Robert Watson said.
“We dealt with similar issues in 9/11,” Jessica Rich, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau, told Politico last week. “One reason that the government doesn’t have all of this data is there’s a lot of concern about big brother maintaining large databases on every consumer on sensitive issues like health, and for good reason.”
The Slovakian parliament passed a law last month allowing the government to access location data in cell phones to track the movements of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. The legislation was inspired by similar laws passed in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
“This is a situation where it’s far too easy to make arguments for undue interference with civil rights and liberties,” said Tomas Valasek, who chairs the European affairs committee in the Slovakian parliament. “We need to make sure that we don’t go a single inch further than absolutely necessary in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting for public health.”
Slovakia’s justice minister, Maria Kolikova, argued that while the legislation was far too invasive for normal times, the threat of the coronavirus justified a temporary invasion of Slovakian citizen’s rights and privacy.
“It is the same with other rights, for example freedom of speech: freedom of speech is not absolute. There are certain reasons why we can limit these rights,” Kolikova said. ”I’m certain that if the protection of health and life is at stake, legislation like this is appropriate.”
Israel and Italy have adopted similar measures. Israel has adapted cell phone tracking data meant to combat terrorism into tracking the whereabouts of COVID-19 patients after they test positive for the disease. In Lombardy, Italy, one of the worst hit regions in world, government officials are using cell phone tracking data to ensure that residents are following government stay at home orders.
In Hungary, the parliament has suspended new elections and given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán expansive authority to take action against the coronavirus for an indefinite time period. The parliament has also outlawed knowingly spreading false information about the virus, a law critics say the government could use to justify suppression of Orban’s opponents in the media.