In battling coronavirus, we can be both safe and free
By Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts
Originally published in The Boston Globe on March 16, 2020
The federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been wildly inadequate, with too-few-test kits and wild message swings by President Trump, who has vacillated between the coronavirus disappearing “like a miracle” to suddenly announcing severe restrictions on travel from Europe to the United States. His failure even to consult with allied European governments before issuing his latest travel ban, and his decision to exempt the United Kingdom (which reportedly has more cases of the coronavirus than many European countries hit by the ban), threatens to politicize the virus at the very moment when international cooperation should be at a maximum. At a time when we most need trust in our government, we have a most untrustworthy leader in the White House. He finally declared a national emergency Friday.
Meanwhile, there are reports that China has deployed social media platforms for a “turn in your friends” campaign, biometric surveillance technology to detect elevated temperatures in a crowd, and facial recognition to determine whether people are wearing masks. Such moves drive people underground, undermine public trust in government and, public health and legal experts warn, will “disproportionately affect the most vulnerable segments in our communities.”
If we are to avoid living in some kind of locked-up surveillance dystopia, government officials at the federal, state, and local levels together must invest in public health interventions and social support to make voluntary compliance possible.
Public health and legal experts agree: Voluntary measures are more likely to induce cooperation — and therefore be effective — than coercive measures, particularly during times of emergency. In order to encourage all people to cooperate with public health guidelines, leaders must prioritize providing strong social and economic support to enable people to comply, with particular attention to the most vulnerable people in our society.
As the virus spreads in our state, Massachusetts decision-makers must ensure that any Covid-19 response plan protects the health, safety, and civil liberties of everybody.
For example, state and local enforcement — including the attorney general, district attorneys, and local police — should reduce the number of people in state custody in order to prevent the coronavirus from entering a prison or jail. Where possible, nonenforcement or citations should be prioritized over arrests. Likewise, the ACLU of Massachusetts has called upon US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to halt immigration detentions to limit the spread of the virus in jails and detention centers, and minimize the hardships that the virus causes for immigrant communities.
Once a contagious illness enters correctional facilities, conditions become highly conducive to it spreading. The Massachusetts Department of Correction and county houses of correction should act to protect the public health of incarcerated people and staff, including ensuring adequate cleaning supplies and access to medical care, and should cooperate with local public health officials to determine other appropriate measures to take. Importantly, facilities must meet the challenges of Covid-19 without violating the rights of the people in its custody. If visitation is restricted or suspended, for example, phone calls to loved ones and attorneys should be free.
State government, in conjunction with local and federal government, must also ensure equal access to health care, including free and fair coronavirus testing. Insurance status should not hinder testing or access to care. Importantly, Massachusetts has already taken steps to ensure insurers cover the full cost of coronavirus testing and treatment, and to help uninsured residents get coverage. Governor Charlie Baker should be commended for this focus on expanding access to medical care.
Finally, in order to encourage all people to cooperate with public health guidelines, government and employers must ensure that people are protected from job loss and economic hardship. People will not cooperate with voluntary social distancing measures if they are unable to provide for themselves and their families. Massachusetts lawmakers similarly should be applauded for quickly passing a coronavirus aid package — an important $15 million down payment on what is likely to be a much larger required investment in public health.
Any coronavirus response must be grounded in science and public health, and not politicized. The ACLU will be watching closely — and communicating with — the government and public to ensure Massachusetts’ response is scientifically justified and avoids false tradeoffs between safety and liberty.