Farewell to Liberté?: COVID-19 and Our Ever-changing Notion of Freedom

Cover Photo: Free Use from Adobe Stock

2nd-year Student in the Euro-North America program at the Campus of REIMS

As much as this would come off as a cliché, there is no quote that better defines the concept of democracy than “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” Perfectly encapsulating the spirit of the French revolution, this short yet pithy motto has given birth to the very idea of democracy to this world, inspired the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and continues to influence the current political landscape. Among the three words that comprise the motto, it would be no exaggeration to say that liberty precedes equality and fraternity, as the order would suggest. Indeed, men could not be equal with their counterparts, nor be able to form an alliance, unless they have the liberty to do so. Despite this premise, when confronted with a pandemic on an unprecedented scale, all heads of states from almost all democratic nations around the globe are currently choosing to restrain their citizen’s individual freedom in hopes of containing the virus. Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures; still, considering liberty’s symbolic stance in our modern society, we cannot simply abandon liberty at all costs, which leaves each government to tread a thin line between the two indispensable virtues of liberty and virus containment. As a result, we, people of the COVID-19 era, are left with the inevitable question; individual freedom or the “greater good”? And if we do end up picking a side, to what extent can we adhere to it? 

Perhaps the most controversial (and yet effective) method adopted is contact-tracing, a technique linking large databases such as GPS phone tracking and credit card transactions to track possible outbreaks and clusters. As for its effectiveness, there is no doubt that contract-tracing is the single most efficient method when it comes to tracking down infections and containing the virus. In South Korea, a country hailed for its efficacy in flattening the curve in the early stages, contract-tracing has always been a premise and an indispensable part of the nation’s disease control agency. After its second massive virus outbreak took place in clubs and bars in Seoul last May, the South Korean government was able to track down 46,000 people who had been in contact with infected partygoers, all thanks to contract-tracing. To this date, South Korea maintains a considerably low ranking of total cases per capita in the world, and has cemented its status as a leading nation in COVID-19 control. Although this result could be attributed to a combination of various factors, it is undeniable that South Korea could not have been able to come this far without using this method. 

However, due to its usage of private information—such as credit card transactions—contact-tracing has sparked a  much-awaited debate on the linkage between virus-containing and individual privacy and has been denounced as a step back from liberty by some. Not surprisingly, the most outspoken criticism came from France, the birthplace of modern democracy. Virginie Pradel, a French lawyer, called out South Korea and Taiwan as countries that are “not model in terms of respect for individual freedoms” but rather the “worst” in her Les Échos article, alluding to their usage of contact-tracing. Pradel’s choice of words might have been a bit unrelenting, but her sentiment is shared by a number of people around the world as contact-tracing does raise some serious concerns, ranging from the intrusion of individual privacy through the disclosure of personal information, to the possibility of governments utilizing collected information for other purposes, just to name a few. In fact, some of these concerns have already become a reality. In May, after the South Korean government revealed that a COVID-positive 29-year-man had visited a club in Seoul’s gay district, certain media outlets shifted their attention towards denouncing the LGBTQ+ community as being “promiscuous” and therefore “more prone to spreading the virus”. This undoubtedly made numerous closeted LGBTQ+ people in South Korea tremble in fear of possible outing and hate crimes, as the anonymous gay individual confesses, “I would rather die than having my close ones know of my identity.” Consequently, it is no surprise that a lot of people from nations around the world, including France, have concerns regarding this new worrisome technology. 

Nonetheless, this is not to say that France is handling this situation without any sort of intrusion into their citizens’ privacy or individual freedoms. We could in fact, say the contrary. The French government initially chose to flatten the curve, as is the case again now with the second lockdown, through limitations of physical freedom: citizens were to remain on lockdown or be fined, a strategy most countries around the world adopted. Depending on how we see it, this could be interpreted as more aggressive than contact-tracing, since it completely prohibits people from moving freely. In addition to these traditional measures, France has recently joined the list of nations using contact-tracing, as StopCovid, a mobile contact-tracing application that alerts its users when they have been in contact with a possible case, was officially put in place—not without a heated debate regarding its implementation. Considering France’s stance as the historical guardian of liberal virtues, the fact that its government has adopted all sorts of measures that limits their citizen’s individual freedoms speaks volumes in itself, as Christophe Castaner, the minister of the interior at the time put it: “not in French culture.” 

Empty streets in Paris, France on the first day of the first national lockdown in France on March 17, 2020
All photos by Charlievdb, 2020

Ironically enough, this ongoing 21st century debate on liberty takes us back to the age of enlightenment, a time when the idea that all men should enjoy freedom was presented to humanity for one of the very first times.

As a matter of fact, the constant dilemma between individual freedom and privacy in these trying times is not limited to certain parts of the world. Instead, it pertains to every existing nation in this world,  as long as they choose to take measures to subvert the status quo, whether it be a high-end technique or the traditional method of restricting movements. However, no matter what method each nation chooses to handle their situation, we cannot escape the fact that all “solutions” to the current pandemic involve trade-offs. No policy is perfect, and they can only be as effective as it is intruding to individual freedom. In other words, as long as COVID-19 remains as prevalent as it is now, the public should not expect the government to be privacy-friendly while effectively containing the virus at the same time. However, what the government can and must do is to ensure that privacy-intruding measures are removed as soon as they are no longer necessary. But for the time being, we will have to put up with those measures, which also means that this ceaseless controversy between critics and advocates will persist.

Ironically enough, this ongoing 21st century debate on liberty takes us back to the age of enlightenment, a time when the idea that all men should enjoy freedom was presented to humanity for one of the very first times. If in the 18th century, the debate around liberty was one regarding whether people had an individual right to it, it is now a question of why we shouldn’t have it, or to what extent we should be free when considering the greater good. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the key thinkers of this time, wrote in 1762, “man is born free but he is everywhere in chains”. Liberty might be conceived as a presupposed value in 2020, three centuries after Rousseau’s time, but it still comes with some serious civil responsibilities and constraints. Perhaps now is the new era of Enlightenment that will urge humankind to newly transform the idea of liberty in times of dystopian techniques and an unprecedented pandemic. Our notion of liberty will drastically change in the post-coronavirus era, along with a handful of other virtues that we had previously taken for granted. At this point, nobody knows when that will take place or what this change will look like; all we can do is stand back and wait until this new wave surges upon us. ▣


FRANCE 24. “French Lockdown Comes into Force in Bid to Curtail Spread of Deadly Virus.” France 24, 17 Mar. 2020, www.france24.com/en/20200317-french-lockdown-comes-into-force-in-bid-to-curtail-spread-of-deadly-virus

Le Figaro. “Coronavirus: Le Traçage Numérique N’est ‘Pas Dans La Culture Française’, Assure Christophe Castaner.” Le Figaro.fr, 26 Mar. 2020, www.lefigaro.fr/flash-eco/coronavirus-le-tracage-numerique-n-est-pas-dans-la-culture-francaise-assure-christophe-castaner-20200326.

Le Monde. “Coronavirus : Qu’est-Ce Que StopCovid, L’appli De Traçage Étudiée Par Le Gouvernement ?” Le Monde, 8 Apr. 2020, www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2020/04/08/qu-est-ce-que-stopcovid-l-appli-de-tracage-numerique-etudiee-par-le-gouvernement_6036036_4408996.html.

Litan, Robert E., and Martin Lowy. “Freedom and Privacy in the Time of Coronavirus.” Brookings, 23 Apr. 2020, www.brookings.edu/research/freedom-and-privacy-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/.

Pradel, Virginie. “Opinion: Covid-19 Et Traçage : Ne Sacrifions Pas Nos Libertés Individuelles !” Les Echos, 14 Apr. 2020, www.lesechos.fr/idees-debats/cercle/opinion-covid-19-et-tracage-ne-sacrifions-pas-nos-libertes-individuelles-1192463.

Soltani, Ashkan, et al. “Contact-Tracing Apps Are Not a Solution to the COVID-19 Crisis.” Brookings, 16 July 2020, www.brookings.edu/techstream/inaccurate-and-insecure-why-contact-tracing-apps-could-be-a-disaster/.

The British Library. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau – The Social Contract.” The British Library, 5 Apr. 2006, www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/utopia/revolution1/rousseau1/rousseau.html.

The Korea Herald. “’이태원 집단감염’에 커지는 성소수자 혐오…’아웃팅’ 우려.” The Korea Herald, 10 May 2020, www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200510000028.

United Nations. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, 10 December 1948,  www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

Woodward, Aylin. “South Korea Controlled Its Coronavirus Outbreak in Just 20 Days. Here Are the Highlights from Its 90-Page Playbook for Flattening the Curve.” Business Insider France, 18 Apr. 2020, www.businessinsider.fr/us/how-south-korea-controlled-its-coronavirus-outbreak-2020-4

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