If Americans stopped in their tracks for 14 days straight while maintaining at least a six foot distance, the coronavirus epidemic would “sputter to a halt,” according to experts. Of course, such complete paralysis is virtually impossible, and the US government has not taken such a stringent approach. State governments are telling people to stay home and most businesses are shuttered, but even New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order exempts 59 occupations from its restrictions. The streets are quiet, but not empty.
The US has not implemented the draconian expert-preferred form of lockdown because American societal norms do not allow for such restrictiveness. The US is so fundamentally committed to individual liberty that it’s often distrustful of government. And while other democracies have instituted more complete lockdowns, even they have not tried to so forcefully suppress the virus as China did when it issued orders to shut everyone inside and close nearly everything down.
This divergence in approaches indicates that democratic leaders are aware of their own citizens’ unwillingness to tolerate serious restraint—even in a time of crisis. So far, people have given their governments the benefit of the doubt, largely obeying orders that a few weeks ago were unfathomable. But democratic citizens, particularly Americans, are not prepared to divest their liberties indefinitely. Indeed, Western democracies are playing a dangerous game: Without being able to offer a clear timeline, states are expecting citizens to accept an open-ended disruption of life as they know it. And while democratic citizens crave and need better leadership, many are also prone to reject any solutions that seriously threaten their freedoms—even at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson initially estimated it would take about 12 weeks to combat the outbreak; the UK deputy chief medical officer then said that normal life likely will not resume for at least six months. A French report recommended at least six weeks of social distancing; France since extended its lockdown through May 11. US president Donald Trump at one point hoped to lift restrictions by April 12, even as the country’s director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci refuted that deadline: “I think people might get the misinterpretation—[we’re] just going to lift everything up,” Fauci said. “That’s not going to happen.”
For democratic citizens accustomed to so-called liberty, an uncomfortable number of questions remained unanswered. When does the quarantine end? What’s the goal of the quarantine? What are the criteria for ending the quarantine?
Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert from Imperial College London, told UK lawmakers that “the long-term exit of this is clearly the hopes of a vaccine.” At best, that’s a year away, although it’s not guaranteed that one will work. Hope is not a policy, and citizens in the Western world will not tolerate being quarantined indefinitely as their leaders pray for a scientific miracle.
Despite limiting their lockdowns, democratic South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have had comparatively more success fighting the virus than many Western democracies, but their approaches—the result of a 17-year build-up in response to the SARS outbreak—also include intrusive government surveillance. South Korea, for instance, is tracking infected people and providing a live map of their locations to anyone wishing to avoid them. It’s hard to imagine such surveillance finding purchase in the US given Americans’ distrust of how governments could use personal data.
What’s more, Hong Kong, despite initially easing restrictions after its success, in late March sent workers back home, closed parks, and renewed calls for social distancing. Hong Kong scientists expect the pandemic to “work in waves,” and that waves of shutdowns will be required to stop it.
Leading experts support this “suppression-and-lift strategy.” As Harvard research fellow Stephen Kissler said, referring to the US: “We need to be prepared to do multiple periods of social distancing.”
Yet this on-and-off cycle is difficult to reconcile with democratic freedom. It would also likely have disastrous effects on societal mental health—as forecasted by a German politician’s recent death by suicide. It’s apparent that Americans, Brits, and others are not willing to repeatedly re-isolate themselves for at least a year, if not longer, as the virus continues to circulate.
Still, most governments have failed to produce answers about when life will return to some version of normalcy. Trump’s plan to reopen the US economy offers no real standard for opening. European leaders, meanwhile, can’t say when the quarantine will end because they simply don’t know; nor can they agree on the right measures to take against it.
But leaving citizens in the dark about how long their lives will be in stasis is not politically sustainable for Western democratic leaders. Nor is repeated isolation, when eventual re-openings of society bring new waves of infections. Some people are unwilling to forfeit their liberties—even at risk of exposing themselves to this virus—and will soon demand answers; if leaders lack them, social discord seems inevitable.
The seams are already beginning to come apart. Israelis violated mandatory quarantine orders to protest their government’s use of tracking capabilities. Italian society is already buckling and prime minister Giuseppe Conte has deployed police for fears of rioting, looting, and general unrest. US protestors have demonstrated against lockdowns in places including Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina.
If time goes by and democratic governments offer no clear end to isolation, these protests could become more widespread. The pandemic could bolster extreme political groups across the spectrum, fueling fear and conspiracy theories that undermine the basic tenets of society—inching societies ever closer to a Hobbesian mess.
Given these pressures, Western democratic governments, rather than create a stronger and more intrusive state vis-à-vis South Korea, need to begin implementing an exit strategy, however difficult that may be. Lockdowns are necessary, but they are not a long-term solution.
“I suppose they can be useful, if you are unprepared and need more intensive care facilities, for example,” said Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist. “But you are really just pushing the problem ahead of you.”