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COVID-19 and the state

The pandemic should not be an excuse to unreasonably curtail civil liberties, says Michael Spratt

Michael Spratt

How much freedom are we willing to give up, and for how long?

A month ago, it all would have be unthinkable. Government-enforced physical distancing rules. Shelter-in-place orders. Police-enforced blockades at provincial boarders. Government snitch lines. Expanded police powers. It boggles the mind that freedoms and rights can so quickly evaporate.

Benjamin Franklin may have said that those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. But he never lived through a global pandemic, and Franklin was talking about tax policy, not hundreds of thousands of deaths.

There is no question that, in the new COVID-19 reality, some individual freedoms must be sacrificed for the collective good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

So, yes. You will be unable to cross a provincial border to get to your cottage. You may need to wait in line to get into the grocery store. And no, you selfish and uncaring monster, you can’t hit the links for a round of golf or hang out with your friends at the beach.

But we must be careful and measured when we surrender our rights. This is not a thing that should be done lightly. We should not rush headlong into embracing a police state and new Orwellian dystopia.

It is easy, after all, to be too deferential to those in power at times of crisis. Just look at the headlines in the Toronto Star: Doug Ford becomes the unlikely leader that his province needs; Doug Ford has risen to the coronavirus challenge; and, surprise: Doug Ford is performing well.

When the Toronto Star is praising the Ford government the world has truly turned upside down.

The reality is that it took a global pandemic for Ford to realize the importance of what governments actually do. The same social programs and institutions that Ford delighted in undermining and destroying are the real heroes who have risen to the coronavirus challenge.

A few weeks of adequate leadership does not erase the past and should not be provide immunity to criticism, especially when it comes to restrictions on civil liberties.

Last week Ontario declared a state of emergency and evoked the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, which allows the government to make orders prohibiting travel, closing public and private facilities, and limiting social gatherings.

These provincial orders are backed up by fines as high at $100,000 and the possibility of a year in jail. The minimum fine for violations is $880.

But there have been few critical words.

There have already been mindboggling examples of the state inappropriately flexing its enforcement muscles. In Ottawa, a man was given an $880 fine for walking his dog, alone, in a park. And a parent in Ottawa received a fine for letting their 4-year-old child play with a soccer ball in an empty field.

The reality is that we cannot police our way out of a pandemic.

The scope and details of the provincial orders are not easily ascertainable to the average person, which leave the new police powers ripe for abuse.

Under the new emergency laws, anyone who fails to identify themselves to a police offer is also guilty of an offence and liable to large fines and imprisonment.

Yes, the police need reasonable and probable grounds to make arrests and compel identification, but how is a police officer to know if a group of more than five people is a prohibited social gathering or just a family or group of roommates? Is every bylaw officer going to carry a ruler to measure the required two-meter separation?

The standard of reasonable and probable grounds offers little protection when the rules are so unclear and so much depends on the discretion of law enforcement.

If carding, marijuana arrests and traffic stops have taught us anything it is that the rules are different depending on the colour of your skin and your social class.

The reality is that the new Ontario emergency order has effectively created a new COVID-19 carding system.

Most Canadians are voluntarily abiding by the new COVID-19 restrictions. For those that are not, it is unclear that the threat of fines and jail will offer any deterrence.

And there are real-life consequences for the expansion of police powers. The poor, marginalized and racialized will be the ones to unjustly suffer those consequences. Policing the pandemic offers no cures, but it will put marginalized communities at risk.

It has never been more important that we remain vigilant about the creeping powers of the state.

The COVID-19 restrictions should serve as a wakeup call to the importance of freedom, and not a justification to clamp down on civil liberties.

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