Civil Liberties After COVID: Lessons from Taiwan

The Christian Science Monitor has a great and topical piece examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rights and freedoms across the world. As probably the only event in history to affect the entire world more or less equally—even the Spanish Flu and world wars were less widespread in their impact—the pandemic served as something of a social and political experiment: How is humanity as a whole responding? What are the distinctions across societies, cultures, and systems of government concerning this perennial challenging balance safety and security with individual and community freedom?

“That tension is long-standing, liberty versus security. Are they complements or substitutes?” says Marcella Alsan, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, who studies public health and infectious diseases. “What’s interesting about the current situation, and particularly prior to the development of the vaccines – when all countries basically have the very same rudimentary toolkit of these NPIs, these nonpharmaceutical interventions – was basically, How willing were people to go along with these restrictions? What were they willing to sacrifice and what were they not willing to sacrifice?”

Ms. Alsan oversaw a November study that surveyed over 400,000 people across 15 nations about their attitudes toward civil liberties during the pandemic. More than 80% were agreeable to giving up some freedoms during a crisis. A closer look at the results, however, reveals gradations between citizens of different nations. Those surveyed in the United States and Japan were far less willing to relax privacy protections, sacrifice the freedom of press, and endure economic losses than those in China. Citizens in European countries occupied a middle ground between those two poles. Respondents in India, Singapore, and South Korea were more willing to suspend democratic procedures for the sake of public health. 

According to Human Rights Watch, 83 governments restricted free speech and free assembly in the name of pandemic protections. Enforcement of those measures could be harsh. Youths in the Philippines were locked in dog cages following curfew violations, says Ms. Pearson. In India, police physically assaulted 10 journalists who reported that a COVID-19 roadblock in the southeast was preventing villagers from reuniting with their families. South Africa enforced a ban on cigarettes and alcohol by setting up roadblocks to search cars for contraband.

“Freedom House has been tracking a decline in [global] democracy for the past 15 consecutive years, and what we found is that COVID-19 has really exacerbated that decline,” says Amy Slipowitz, research manager for Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tracks civil liberties worldwide.

Frightening stuff, and not entirely surprising: The Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century, which ranks second only to COVID-19 in its reach and impact, saw similar concerns, controversies, and conflict related to lockdowns and their political and civil ramifications. Over a century later, we are faced with very familiar problems—only this time, governments are exceedingly more technologically sophisticated.

One country that stands out in the report is Taiwan, whose highly effective response to the pandemic—as a developed and vibrant democracy—has led its star to rise like never before in the global community. Apparently, its excellent job at minimizing the spread and death toll of the virus did not come at the severe cost of its citizens’ freedoms, now or into the future.

[Some] countries, including Sweden and South Korea, placed a high value on maintaining a fairly open society. Taiwan did so by forging a state-society collaboration. Prior to becoming one of the world’s freest democracies, the small island nation had been subject to martial law and single-party rule from 1947 until the late 1980s. That relatively recent experience colored the Taiwanese response to the pandemic. Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control had legal authority to implement stringent measures, but it didn’t declare a state of emergency. Schools and stores remained open. In those instances when Taiwan did curtail liberties – including a track-and-trace program that included strict border controls – it employed a humane touch. Individuals placed under mandatory 14-day home quarantine received meal deliveries and trash disposal services. A hotline was set up for their mental health. And in response to concerns that those penned inside a digital fence could be watched by Big Brother long after the pandemic, the state promised to erase that cellphone data. 

“The government recognized that, because the people’s freedom of movement is temporarily suspended, it is the responsibility of the government to take care of those individuals who had to be isolated for the sake of the public,” says Tsung-Ling Lee, an assistant professor of law at Taipei Medical University. “The government is seeking broad-based social support in that a lot of our measures that have to be implemented in the epidemic are relational.”

Taiwan’s government also favored persuasion over coercion. Case in point: its handling of one of the world’s three largest religious ceremonies, the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage. Every April, tens of thousands join in a nine-day parade that originates at the Zhenlan temple and proceeds through a large swath of the island. Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control has broad legal leeway to institute emergency measures such as prohibiting large public gatherings. Instead, the minister of health and welfare approached the temple’s chairman, a former opposition party member of the country’s legislature. The minister persuaded the temple to change its plans and delay the parade by several months. The temple went even further – it donated its parade budget to the Central Epidemic Command Center. In turn, the minister later appeared at a temple ceremony as a gesture of grateful appreciation to the worshippers.

“It’s better to foster a bottom-up approach toward where the boundaries should be versus having a top-down authoritarian approach of where the boundary should be,” says Ming-Cheng Lo, a professor of sociology and East Asian studies at the University of California, Davis, in a phone call from Taiwan.

All this is a huge turnaround from nearly a decade ago, when Taiwan was an epicenter of the 2003 SARS outbreak, to which it responded with political infighting, polarization, and social fragmentation and cynicism. While that virus infected fewer than four hundred people, and left “only” 73 dead, it exposed some very troubling rifts in Taiwanese society and government that could have made its COVID-19 cousin even deadlier.

Instead, Taiwan appears to have learned its lesson: While political divisions are no better than eight years ago, citizens and politicians alike have set them aside for the greater good. Media across the political spectrum emphasized the “importance of societal collaboration and compassion”. One Taiwanese sociologist credits the “traumatic” experience of the SARS outbreak with helping “Taiwanese to fundamentally reassess the boundaries between personal choice and civic duty during this emergency”. As she told the CS Monitor:

To have that consensus, then eliminates the need, or at least minimized the need, of having to send police to patrol the streets to see if people who are under quarantine are actually breaking the rules. Citizens deliberated among themselves and said, “This is a sacrifice that we should all make in order to protect the greater good of all of us.”

So did an internationally isolated nation that has only been democratic for roughly thirty years crack the code of balancing liberty and security, personal freedom with public health, and all the other complexities that come with maintaining a democracy? If so, what does that say about the role of cultural and community values in helping society navigate the precarious balance of safety and freedom? What are your thoughts?

Taiwan: A global model for balancing the inherent tensions within a democratic society?

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