- Freedom is an important aspect of human life and is constantly in a struggle with authority.
- The pandemic has forced governments to impose restrictions on our personal freedoms.
- Obeying these restrictions will help get the virus under control.
- Dr. Tunde Gafaar works for the National Health Service (NHS) in London.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
This was a response I saw on Twitter to a post about the new lockdown and restrictions imposed by the British government over the Christmas period for London.
Another response was to quote article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”. The person then tweeted underneath the quote that ‘We do not have fair weather rights. They either exist at all times or they do not exist.’
As part of our social contract with the government, we agree to give up some of our individual freedoms to the state in exchange for a safe working society for the greatest number of the population and we expect them to protect our rights through provision of certain services and the enforcement of rules and regulations. This stops us from living in a state of constant fear, and gives us the opportunity to do things like acquire property knowing that the government will protect our lives and valuables. It stops every individual in society from arming themselves and acting as judge, jury and executioner.
The pandemic has put a huge strain on this tense relationship between the people and the state. In order to reduce the spread of the virus and protect the majority of the population, governments all over the world have introduced various restrictive measures, such as compulsory mask policies and lockdowns to help slow the spread of the disease. This has been seen as a step too far by some people; after all, we should be free to decide what we want to wear, where we want to go, and who we spend our time with.
This argument, in a sense, is fair. The government should not be dictating these things to its citizens. However, we are in very special circumstances. We are essentially in a state of war against an invisible enemy that we do not fully understand, which has no known cure and potentially has long lasting effects on our bodies. As a result, it is difficult for the normal rules to apply at the moment. Most Human rights aren’t absolute and they can in a sense be infringed upon in the interest of the general public. For example, individuals convicted of violent crimes lose their right to free movement when they are incarcerated.
Views from the front lines
As a doctor who has been working in London non-stop throughout this pandemic, I have seen first hand the devastation this virus has caused. The number of cardiac arrests I attended and the number of patients I saw die from Covid and from hospital services being overwhelmed during the first wave was devastating. At its maximum, approximately 75% of all 400 beds at my place of work were filled with COVID-19 patients. I went to work every day knowing that a good number of my patients were going to die, and without fail, they did. The mortuary at my hospital was so full that we had to order refrigerator vans to keep some of the dead bodies. Going to work was like going to a war zone and I had to find ways to mentally prepare myself for the carnage I was going to experience.
In December 2020, the scenes that preceded the absolute worst weeks during the first wave started to reoccur. We started seeing an increasing number of hospital admissions of people with the novel coronavirus. In a departure from the first wave, we worryingly noted that a large number of patients were in their 30s and 40s with little or no pre-existing medical conditions, unlike during the first wave. My colleagues and I felt that this change was due to the new coronavirus strain that had been identified in the UK in September 2020. We were worried that an even worse second wave was on its way.
As the data has now shown, this second wave has been worse than the first. We have had record numbers of people admitted to hospitals with the virus and record numbers of daily deaths being announced. During a recent 13 hour shift, the number of people admitted with severe COVID was so high that we ran out of space in our intensive care unit and also ran out of CPAP (non invasive ventilation) machines; thankfully we were eventually able to source extra machines from elsewhere. Speaking to colleagues who work in other hospitals, similar scenes have been repeated in London and all over the country. For perhaps the first time in history, hospitals nationwide have struggled with the amount of oxygen being used up on a daily basis. In total, over 100,000 people in the UK have now unfortunately lost their lives to this virus whilst thousands more are suffering lasting effects from being infected.
Sadly, we can’t absolve Her Majesty’s government of its part in this tragedy. Throughout this pandemic, communication regarding the latest policy and tier level, and what that entails, has been confusing. There doesn’t seem to be a clear direction and plan to attack the virus. The track and trace system has been bungled and the public have low amounts of trust in it. Government advisors and politicians have broken the lockdown rules at various points in time over the last few months. Provision of PPE for NHS and care home staff was inadequate in the first few months. For a long time we didn’t have a good and efficient testing system in the country. All this in addition to the general decline of public trust in governments worldwide in the last few decades, has created an environment in which a lot of people are doing what they want and not what is being advocated. Furthermore, the spread of misinformation on social media about COVID has contributed to a lack of willingness to comply with government directives. It has led to a situation where I have had patients who refuse to take COVID tests or wear masks because they believe it is all a hoax.
It would be cruel not to acknowledge that a good proportion of people that are against lockdowns worry about the significant economic and mental health consequences they entail. These are very valid reasons and robust systems need to be put in place to ensure that no one is significantly worse off financially or mentally for complying with the lockdown measures.
As much as the government has bungled various aspects of it’s coronavirus policy, we do need to embrace the measures in order to control the infection and get back to a sense of normal as soon as possible. Hard lockdowns with a robust mask policy, an efficient contact tracing & testing system, and people obeying those policies, is what has led to a fairly effective control of the virus in places like Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand and China. It has been speculated that the strong sense of community over the individual in the East Asian countries has been attributed to the willingness of people to use masks and obey government infection control guidelines.
Despite all our misgivings, we need to pull together and look out for one another. This virus could easily infect and kill anyone of family members. One person’s nonchalance can easily result in another’s death.
Let us put our communities and our country over ourselves. If this means a restriction of some of our freedoms for a few weeks in order to save lives and get back to some sense of normal much quicker then it is worth it. These next few weeks will be absolutely crucial in determining how the rest of 2021 goes. As one of the lucky few to have had the vaccine, I am hopeful that the vaccine roll out means we are approaching the beginning of the end. In the meantime, let us wear our masks and obey the guidelines being put to help control the spread of the virus and to prevent further mutations; we all have a crucial role to play in controlling this highly contagious disease.
Dr Tunde Gafaar is a medical doctor working for the National Health Service (NHS) in London.