During the Middle Ages, as the bubonic plague advanced across Europe, cities in Italy closed their ports, isolated plague victims, quarantined their families, and restricted the movements of all residents. These were extraordinary measures meant for extraordinary times—the Black Death killed more than 25 million Europeans in just four years.
The price of these measures was one that human beings have since willfully given up time and time again in exchange for a sense of security: Their rights. And it’s happening again now.
In order to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments around the world have enacted similar measures, from quarantines and curfews to moves that have essentially paused the global economy. Public health experts say these are necessary to save millions of lives. But they also come with a significant loss of personal liberties. In France and Italy, people can only go outside once a day, armed with a permission form, and are fined if they don’t comply. In South Korea, health officials implemented what’s known as “contract tracing” by tracking Covid-19 patients using GPS data from their cars and cellphones—a significant invasion of privacy by most measures.