The economics of pandemic control versus civil liberties

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

A year after the start of COVID-19, one of the lessons learned is that in the fight against future pandemics, we may have to choose between suppressing the disease and protecting people’s civil liberties. Economic incentives are important to understanding the reasons for this tradeoff.

Ideally, people would voluntarily download anonymized contact-tracing apps, and submit to high frequency testing, but they do not. Fundamentally, this is because the costs that individuals bear from these decisions do not equal the costs that society bear. Economists refer to this as an “externality”. Consequently, invasive contact-tracing and heavy-handed testing become attractive options for society, even if they infringe upon people’s rights.

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Before exploring the argument in greater detail, it is important to understand that if it is a matter of time until a new lethal pathogen arrives (as many experts affirm), then some of the countermeasures used in the COVID-19 pandemic are either insufficient, or unsustainable.

For example, if the disease spreads and people start to fear leaving their homes (or are forced to do so by lockdowns), crippling many sectors and threatening thousands of jobs, paying salaries using generous fiscal stimulus packages is not possible, as public debts have already ballooned beyond control.

Moreover, despite the breathtaking speed of vaccine development, the process of administering jabs to a compliant population, let alone a skeptical one, is time-consuming, and cannot be the primary point of attack against the disease.

Countries containing the COVID-19 successfully, suggest that the fight against the pandemic is the ability to detect the spread of the disease using a combination of contact-tracing, and rapid, mass testing. Together, they enable public health experts to erect invisible walls to prevent the disease from spreading and control the infection.

With people reluctant to send sensitive, personal data to a centralized database via apps, contact tracing and mass testing becomes problematic.

People visiting mental health clinics or special needs schools are not open to revealing this with others. Moreover, the risk of civil servants abusing the data to extort or manipulate regular citizens is there.

Companies such as Apple and Google have developed anonymized versions, but this undoubtedly comes at the cost of performance, because the data from a contact-tracing app is much more effective when combined with additional information from interviews with those testing positive. South Korea tracked people testing positive by using security camera footage.

The problem with testing is the inconvenience. People, understandably don’t like having a stick thrust up their nose, and they may not want to take the time to visit a clinic or receive a tester at their homes. More importantly, people declared positive fear a pariah status in their local communities: family and friends avoid them, leading to painful periods of isolation.

Why isn’t fear of the disease itself enough to motivate people to submit to these methods voluntarily? As we have seen in the case of COVID-19, many segments of the population, and notably the young and healthy, face a negligible health risk. Moreover, for some, the economic cost of being found positive is potentially crippling: they will lose their jobs, or be unable to care for their children or elderly relatives who need them. This is why an effective quarantine financial support system, such as Austria’s, is central to getting people testing positive to voluntarily follow quarantine.

Should people subscribe to contact tracing and rapid testing voluntarily, or should society force them based on assessments for the general interest? For those used to living in a country where the government is trustworthy, such as Denmark or Norway, then this is a palatable option.

However, not everyone is so lucky – in fact a majority of the world’s population live in countries where government corruption is a major problem, creating a serious deficit of trust.

Moreover, as many western countries have seen during the last 15 years, effective and low-corruption government is not necessarily durable. Countries that have a long history of trust in public institutions have seen much of that trust eroded in a short span of time, meaning that even the citizens who are lucky today should not take that luck for granted.

These concerns should make people think twice before agreeing to have a contact-tracing chip installed in their body; but going forward, the question is: will people be afforded the choice?

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