The pandemic shocked us with a traumatic lesson about cooperation and interdependency. It finally presented the immediate and visceral threat necessary to teach us what had long been laid out on a breadcrumb trail: that when it comes to the well-being of others, an individual’s rights and freedoms take the back seat.
But while some of us were learning about the expendability of our civil liberties for the sake of the common good, others were more wisely aghast at the lesson itself. Indeed, COVID seemed like a master class in tyranny, making a daringly naked case for the end of free will—and it came after decades of careful teaching.
The pandemic response put a capstone on years of crisis conditioning that consistently pitted personal freedom against the greater good. Since 9/11, every threat to come down the mainstream news cycle seemed to huddle around the same consensus, that some fresh element of our liberty was making the world hurt and that we were selfish to hold on to it.
The war on terror taught us that privacy threatened national security and that submission to the surveillance state was the at-home duty of a good citizen. Next, climate change brought our natural rights into question, teaching us that everything from movement to procreation and consumption only put the world in peril.
In the United States, where gun ownership is a right, a spate of school shootings presented the inevitable conclusion that such a freedom is deadly.
And finally, the social justice crisis inspired a movement that found new and surprising threats hidden in the space between words, putting free speech on permanent trial for its evolving capacity to cause harm.
A strange thing was happening: either we were maturing into a more complex and connected world, and liberty was truly getting in the way, or a vested interest was curating problems and manufacturing solutions that would scapegoat our freedoms.
COVID proved the latter when it gave us a full-monty sales pitch for unwarranted tyranny. It wanted us to drop the whole basket of liberties we, conveniently, had been just taught could hurt us. This time, the line was that privacy, mobility, speech, and (newly) bodily autonomy could kill and not just harm. So we ran towards contact tracing, lockdown, censorship, and coercion.
An unlikely quirk of the virus added in the crucial and repeating element of shame: Since Covid left so many unharmed who could still spread it, resisting the prescribed health measures meant threatening public safety, not just one’s own. So freedom was able to be made into the dirty word of the selfish and the uncaring.
Thus a better plan to poison liberty could not have been written, so we’re left to suspect that this one had been. And from there, we rethink the last twenty years of crises, considering how they unfailingly bent us by increments in the same direction.
We can therefore see the outline of an initiative to commandeer world events, so they act like shock therapy, aimed to wean us off our addiction to freedom. With Covid, the effort went from subtle to frantic, and what could have gone undetected started glowing red. So now we watch the next moves, wide-eyed, perhaps unsure of the ‘who’ and the ‘why,’ but positive they will have nothing to do with “common good.”
Susan Dunham is a talented Canadian writer who can be found on Instagram @susankaydunham