The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of the Great Suppression. What started in late 2019 in China exploded all across the world in the early months of 2020. As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spread from China and across the world, so did the Chinese model of clamping down on citizens’ rights. Blanket lockdowns by governments have shown us that the default position will always be that we need the government to force us to act a certain way. If people don’t come to this realisation and learn from it, governments will only be more emboldened to trample over us in the future.
The immoral and ridiculous regulations and rules imposed by governments all around the world placed healthcare providers and services at a massive disadvantage to deal with this pandemic. The United States stands out as the prime example of regulations standing in the way of the development of a vaccine or other effective treatments. The move to drastically restrict travel and impose lockdowns on people creates the false impression that this is the best way to address the cause – and absolves governments of their failures at the outset. The path of isolating those with the virus, helping them, and tracking those with whom they were in contact, is the only path that respects individual rights and also causes minimal economic damage.
Regulations discourage innovation and trade. They are the very embodiment of the view held by those in government that they know what is better for people than those people themselves would. Regulations are the government using force to interfere in the voluntary conduct of people; conduct which they rightfully should be free to do, and for which they ought to bear the positive or negative consequences.
All manner of conduct between consenting adults has been either strongly influenced, or summarily stopped, by the fist of government. The almost overnight shutdown of economic growth is staggering, and echoes the crisis of 2008. In some ways it might well turn out that the fallout is much worse, and the recovery will take much longer because of the damage governments’ responses have wrought. There has been zero nuance to the majority of governments’ reactions to the crisis – brute, blanket edicts and restrictions have been the tool used to bludgeon people into line.
For South Africa, this pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Before the crisis, South Africa’s economic growth was only projected at just above 1% – now it will be far worse. Earlier this week, Absa economist Peter Worthington estimated that the country could be set for a record GDP contraction of about 23.5% in the second quarter of 2020. That is if the lockdown is not extended beyond three weeks. Furthermore, even if the economy recovers slowly from the third quarter, Worthington expects South Africa’s full-year figure to be as low as -3%.
Ideologically, those on the left have taken this opportunity to rail against the market, as though any economy around the world is truly free. Shortages of ventilators and masks are used to advocate for the nationalisation of healthcare everywhere, as though healthcare markets were free from insane and immoral government regulations to begin with. Meanwhile those on the right have jumped on the chance to rail against the free movement of people, to call for stronger border controls. After all, a pandemic must automatically entail the necessary suppression of everyone’s individual rights. Never is freedom more in danger than in a crisis; the reaction of most governments to the spread of the coronavirus is the latest example of this truth.
The Chinese government’s gut-reaction of suppression and repression greatly exacerbated the crisis. The numbers were downplayed, and data that may indicate a bigger problem than initially thought, was quashed. This is a very painful lesson for the whole world, that following the wrong ideology has massive human costs. All over the world, people are suffering because the Chinese government was not open and forthright from the very beginning. Pointing to the Chinese government’s role does not absolve others; many other governmental agencies and intergovernmental organisations responsible for information and coordination completely failed in their role.
The reactions and edicts of many politicians, especially in the United States, serves to once again illustrate their deeply flawed view of how economics works. They believe that more of x will be produced because they have decreed it so. Wishing that reality is different from what it is, will not change it. Of course, instead of owning their role in the crisis, many politicians and bureaucrats have doubled down on their initial iron-fisted clampdowns.
Am I calling for governments to do nothing when something like this happens? No, governments have a role to play. As mentioned above, the best approach would have been to track and isolate those who had the virus, administer treatment, and track those with whom they’d been in contact. Allowing private laboratories to do their work free of unnecessary regulations would have aided the fight against COVID-19.
By and large the assumption has been that people cannot handle freedom. We came into the epidemic with limited freedom around the world, and we can see the consequences of restricting people’s freedom (both individual and that of businesses and laboratories) writ large all across the world. What ought we learn from this crisis? That governments must be radically pared back and restricted to their proper role: protecting individual rights.
I must give credit for the “Great Suppression” label to Gene Epstein.