Living during a pandemic like the Coronavirus is a strange, unprecedented, and frightening experience. Our activities and movement are being restricted by the government in ways that most of us have never experienced. This can feel threatening.
While these government restrictions are, ostensibly, for the sake of protecting public health during the pandemic, some people are concerned that perhaps these restrictions are a violation of our rights; an abuse of power; and, in some cases, heading us down the slippery slope to a totalitarian state.
On at least two occasions during this pandemic, I have heard folks suggesting that government actions during the pandemic are like actions taken by the government in Nazi Germany and that people who obey these orders are like folks who unwittingly (or wittingly) abetted Nazi atrocities.
While it is always a good idea for citizens to be aware of potential abuses of government power, charges of Nazism during a pandemic provoke extreme feelings of fear in a time when people are already very afraid.
Is this added fear necessary?
Are Quarantine Restrictions an Abuse of Government Power and Leading Us Down a Dangerous Path? (Perhaps to Nazism?)
In answering this question, it is first important to note that all the quarantine restrictions we have witnessed during the pandemic are protected by the Public Health Service Act, a Federal Law instituted by Congress in 1944 in order to aid both the federal and state governments to respond to public health crises like the current one.
This law specifically delineates the conditions that must be in place for a disease to constitute a public health crisis, and it gives both federal and state governments the power to quarantine all or portions of the public; suspend certain operations and services temporarily; and to use tax money to fight the virus. (You can read more about the Public Health Service Act both here and here.)
Thus, it is important to remember during the quarantine that most, if not all, of the actions we see government officials engaging in currently are powers granted to them by Congress.
Did Congress Make a Mistake in Granting These Powers?
But perhaps, someone might argue, Congress should not have granted these powers. Perhaps the government has no business regulating our movement in such ways and that such restrictions are ipso facto (self-evidently) an abuse of power.
Let me examine two government actions actions I have heard criticized to examine why this is not the case.
Example One: The government restricting where we can go, how we can move about in public, and what businesses can be open.
Let’s compare such restrictions to something else we are more familiar with and that is less scary: namely traffic regulations.
Traffic laws legally restrict how we can move about in a car. For example, laws dictate that we must stop at stop signs and red lights. They dictate that we cannot drive the wrong way down a one-way street or drive while under the influence of alcohol. Laws also dictate that vehicles of a certain weight and height cannot go certain places. In some states, drivers must pay toll fees in order to drive on a certain highway.
Traffic laws certainly restrict our movement, but we generally support and follow traffic laws because we know that following such laws saves millions of lives every year. We realize that in a country in which so many people (sometimes in very close spaces) are moving together in vehicles, some movement restrictions are necessary to save lives.
As another example, we should consider that almost all countries in the world restrict the movement of people both in and out of their country to some degree. For instance, when U.S. citizens fly on planes, they must carry identification, and they are not permitted to carry certain items on a plane (like guns or knives). Also, people entering the U.S. on a plane (even citizens) are restricted from bringing certain items into the U.S., like some non-domestic animals and plants.
Once again, we accept these restrictions because we know such restrictions save lives.
It is important to realize that current quarantine restrictions are restrictions permitted by law and that our best medical research shows literally save thousands (perhaps millions) of lives.
So rather than being totalitarian-like actions, the quarantine actions taken by the government are much more like traffic and travel restrictions we live with every day. And, in fact, quarantine restrictions are temporary, whereas most traffic and travel laws are permanent.
Example Two: The government asking people to report on people breaking quarantine.
During the quarantine, many governors have asked people to report people breaking quarantine (e.g. like meeting in large gatherings), and some people feel like this request to report is an egregious abuse of government power.
But is it?
To determine this, I think it is helpful to consider a few other scenarios in which someone might report an activity they see to the police. Here are some possible scenarios:
If someone’s neighbors were cooking and selling meth in their house.
If someone overheard people talking about building a bomb.
If someone’s neighbors were involved in a domestic quarrel that involved weapons and abuse (especially of minors).
Most people would report neighbors involved in such activity to the police because they know that such behavior is illegal and extremely dangerous and, in most of the cases, threatens significant loss of life.
One obvious difference between the above scenarios and people breaking quarantine is that people who break quarantine are usually not trying to hurt anyone. They just want to see their friends or family or (in some cases) go to church.
Reporting such behavior to the police seems draconian, someone might argue, because people aren’t trying to hurt anyone and, technically, they aren’t breaking a law.
It’s important to note that even good, moral people who intend no threat to the public and are not even technically breaking laws can still be dangerous.
For instance, there are some people who mean no harm but who handle fireworks in irresponsible and dangerous ways during the 4th of July. While setting off fireworks is legal in many states, it would still be wise to report such folks to the authorities, especially if pleas by their neighbors to be more responsible were to no avail.
Consider a more benign example: Some senior citizens continue to drive long after it is wise and safe for them to do so. In most cases, these folks intend no harm to the public. They are just trying to hold onto their independence. Many of these folks are even still legally permitted to drive.
Despite their good intentions, and the legality of their actions, senior citizens who drive long after they are physically and cognitively able to drive a car safely are endangering others. A witness reporting such behavior to the police would be, in most cases, acting wise and responsibly.
In both of the above cases, reporting people to the authorities does not entail people being thrown in jail or even fined (although with the firecracker example it might). Usually it entails people being held accountable in some way (like the police visiting and saying “Hey stop”) or, in some cases, receiving help by local authorities.
In the current pandemic, when people are reported to local authorities for breaking quarantine, it usually results in people being told to stay in their house by local authorities or, in some cases, being forced to stay in their house–something which almost everyone else in the U.S. is doing (staying in their house).
But is Behavior Like This Leading Us down the Road to a Totalitarian State (and perhaps to Nazi-Like Living Conditions?
Despite the fact that current quarantine mandates are permitted by Constitutional laws and similar to other practices we already have in the U.S., some folks still fear that current governmental restrictions are leading us down the road to a totalitarian and perhaps Nazi-like state.
It is important to note that the U.S. has faced such restrictions before and survived admirably. During World War II, the government heavily restricted the movement of citizens and also rationed food. (You can read about such war restrictions here.)
We survived such restrictions without turning into a totalitarian or Nazi-like state. In fact, we weathered theses restrictions WHILE battling Nazis (literally).
Some people may protest that such restrictions were necessary because we were under attack by a foreign power and that the Coronavirus isn’t a foreign power. Thus, such serious restrictions are not necessary.
While it is certainly true that the Coronavirus is not a human enemy, it is important to note that an enemy can be natural as well as human. The Coronavirus has already killed more people than the war in Afghanistan did, and the number of Coronavirus casualties is soon to surpass the number of people who died in 9/11. (You can read more about this here.)
It has also wreaked havoc on our economy.
Thus, it is right to view it as an enemy, albeit a natural one, that we must battle Such battles and times of crises always require some temporary emergency measures. World War II lasted six years (from 1939 to 1945). We have been under quarantine for about a month.
It is fairly safe to assume that if the U.S. faced wartime restrictions (even more severe than the current ones) that lasted for four or five years without turning into a totalitarian state, it is likely we can survive pandemic restrictions that last several months without turning into a totalitarian state.*
But What about the Nazis?
In regards to comparisons between current government restrictions and the Nazis, it is true that the Nazis restricted movement and encouraged people to snitch on their neighbors.
However, the Nazis did these things because they were trying to exterminate the Jews (and other folks they deemed undesirable like racial minorities). So Nazi laws were laws rooted in racial prejudice aimed at exterminating, or relocating, portions of the population in order to preserve the power and racial purity of another part of the population.
This is quite a bit different from the laws current government officials enact which are constitutionally-sanctioned laws aim at protecting every single U.S. citizen by strongly suggesting they remain inside their house where they can binge on Netflix, eat snacks, and snuggle with their pets.
But What about All the People the Quarantine Hurts?
It is essential at this point to note that for many people, the quarantine is not a time when people get to “binge on Netflix, eat snacks, and snuggle with their pets.”
It is essential to note that the longer the quarantine lasts, the more economic damage it does to many U.S. citizens–damage that could result in them being unable to support themselves and their families financially and that causes significant suffering.
In addition, many people in quarantine are children, women, and other people trapped in situations of domestic violence.
The very real possibility and current existence of such suffering during the quarantine is probably one of the most legitimate and understandable reasons why some people feel like current measures by the government are an abuse of power.
Such suffering should never be ignored, and it demonstrates why U.S. political leaders and citizens are stuck between a very real rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, if political leaders do not open the economy soon, our economy will likely face significant damage, and more suffering will result. On the other hand, if leaders open the economy too soon, our best medical research suggests that this will result in significant loss of lives (including, possibly, people you and I know and love) and potential further outbreaks of the pandemic that will lead to quarantine again.
This also will result in significant economic damage and more suffering.
This is a serious dilemma and one for which I don’t currently have a solution. What I can say is that the U.S. has faced similar crises before. What helped us survive were the virtues we chose to practice: virtues like compassion, care, loving our neighbor, and forging creative relationships between citizens and state and federal governments.
I believe we can and are showing such virtues in our current crisis and that, in the words of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, “we will get through this, and we will get through it together.”
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*One important note: The United States did sometimes engage in totalitarian behavior during World War II. For instance, after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, we forced almost all Japanese citizens to relocate and remain in internment camps. We did this even though most, if not all, these folks were citizens, had/or had lived in the U.S. for their entire life, and had never committed a crime. This, indeed, was an egregious abuse of government power, and after the war, the U.S. government did indeed recognize this abuse.
History suggests that any time a government singles out people in any one race–like Japanese, Black, Latino, or Muslim folk–for coercive harm, that is almost always (probably always) an example of abusive government power. Thus, if you see the government relocating a certain racial group–say Latinos–to prisons or detention centers, this is definitely an abuse of government power, and you should speak out about it.