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Public good and private rights

In our supposed democratic society, every citizen has individual rights and freedoms such as privacy, confidentiality, bodily integrity, mobility, and association. But personal rights and freedoms are also assumed as overridable especially when public health and safety become immanent and imminent concerns. Private rights must give way to the common good and societal welfare, so they say.

It is not difficult to see that the COVID-19 pandemic is an obvious instance of justifiable infringements on individual rights for the sake of collective values. In the name of public good, government officials implement community quarantine, social distancing, mandatory checkpoints, and nightly curfew. To ensure the orderly implementation of and strict compliance with quarantine rules, police and military personnel have become an almost permanent fixture of public spaces.

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Predictably, the general public will cooperate. After all, what is a temporary interference on private rights if the ultimate gain is an end to this outbreak The ethical appears to be commonsensical. But is it?

“COVID-19 is essentially a health problem, not a peace and order problem. Thus, we need health solutions, not police and military actions,” said former congressman Teddy Casiño. While it can be argued that without police and military visibility the situation might escalate into a real peace and order problem, Casiño’s concern is not without merit.

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Think of the potential for harm of one infected yet angry citizen who becomes desperate because of a disrespectful soldier in a checkpoint, insensitive to a genuine need to work for his hungry family. Multiply that by 20 or 50 or 100, and you will realize that no number of soldiers and policemen can guard the enemies lurking in your cell phone, keychain, pen, and spoon. Then you will prefer a dozen visible suicide bombers to a decillion unseen enemies. In an instant, anybody can have a potent weapon in their literal hands. What is fatal is invisible to the eye. If the moneyed and comfortable can have the perverse inclination to hoard, the deprived and dissatisfied can have the justified provocation to care no more.

Certainly, private rights may be infringed for justifiable reasons. And our present situation calls for such encroachment. It is legal and moral, commonsensical and rational. But an ethical decision is not just a rational balancing of public good and private rights. More importantly, it is a genuine concern for the Other, borrowing a sacred term from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. The Other is the day-to-day laborer who eludes the barricade notwithstanding the ‍viral threat or the risk of police arrest just to feed her family. She is the masked food recipient who wishes for a one-meter physical distance but at the same time has to squeeze herself in to secure her family’s survival. He is both the faultless victim of infection and the unwilling vehicle of the same.

Ultimately, compulsory interference in private rights will only work when the people feel that authorities continue to respect these basic rights, leaders respond to their basic needs, and administrators understand the complexities of being an ordinary citizen.

Therefore, frontliners must exercise extreme tolerance and topnotch professionalism. The last thing we need are implementers who rigidly follow guidelines, unquestioningly impose the commonsensical, and insensitively invoke the law and its moral justifications. What we need rather are trustworthy and compassionate leaders who are respectful of rights and forgetful of politicking.

In Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” Dr. Rieux says: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” The virus itself is more than enough of a pestilence. Let us not add to this plague by deluding ourselves as the harbingers of blind reason, law, and morality.

Franz Giuseppe Cortez teaches philosophy subjects at the University of Santo Tomas.

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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TAGS: COVID-19, freedom, lockdown, personal rights, Quarantine
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