Civil rights groups condemn COVID-19 authoritarianism

March 30, 2020
Governments are opting for authoritarian measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Against expert health and civil rights advice, governments are opting for authoritarian measures they claim will protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as we can already see, their main focus is punitive and revenue-based, rather than educational and service-focused.

While research suggests that 80–90% of the population needs to practice physical distancing, the social contact restrictions necessary to protect public health must be limited and proportionate, argues the Victorian Police Accountability Project.

Its paper, Policing the Pandemic: The need to prioritise public health, dignity and human rights, released on March 30, warns against the abuse that an expansion of police powers can bring “no matter how justified by circumstances”.

The “opportunities for abuse” are heightened, it says, “particularly [for] those communities who are already experiencing a disproportionately high level of discriminatory police interaction”.

Its definition of the most vulnerable is a good, broad one: “Those without permanent housing, living in cramped conditions or with limited access to healthcare, workers who have lost income and have been laid off, children and young people whose education and daily lives have been disrupted, elders and people with disabilities, those who have already faced coronavirus-related discrimination and all of those who cannot afford to self-isolate.”

It makes the point that: “People may be in public space for reasons that are not immediately obvious to police, such as the need to remove themselves from cramped conditions, from a family violence situation or the lack of a secure home in which to self-isolate.”

It also states individuals should not be criminalised for breaching restrictions.

Empowering police

Nevertheless, state governments are deploying increasingly punitive and authoritarian measures to enforce the federal government’s lockdown.

For instance, state governments have empowered police forces to hand out on-the-spot fines to anyone breaking restrictions on social distancing.

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge shared a report that said NSW police issued fines to two occupants in the same car and couples standing next to each other in shopping queues.

A report in The Age focusing on “quarantine dodgers” said people recently returned from overseas and who are self-isolating have had to deal with random home check-ups by the police force. Police now have powers to hand out fines of more than $10,000 to those they deem to have broken quarantine.

Meanwhile, more than 2700 people disembarked from the Ruby Princess cruise ship on March 19 in Sydney’s Circular Quay without so much as a temperature check. They were only asked to self-isolate when they returned home which, in some cases, involved driving interstate.

The Human Rights Law Centre said focusing on punitive measures, rather than on supporting people to be able to self-isolate, is a huge problem.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties spokesperson Stephen Blanks told SBS voluntary compliance would work a lot better, especially given the litany of confused and vague federal directives. He criticised state governments for using the pandemic as a “revenue-raising exercise” and said deploying army personnel, including with weapons, to make sure returned travellers isolate for 14 days, could add to the tension.

The Human Rights Law Centre called on the federal government to abandon efforts to turn the Northern Territory into a “cashless debit card trial site" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marginalised groups

Empowering the police to be the new physical distance enforcers will disproportionately affect marginalised groups.

The Australian Sex Workers Association has protested that sex workers have been targeted for fines.

Remote Aboriginal communities in the NT are being forcibly locked down by the military and police force with new powers under the Biosecurity Act.

The Police Accountability Project called for a moratorium on policing of low-level offences. It said there is “an urgent need to reduce the number of people coming into contact with the criminal legal system during this unprecedented public health emergency”.

The inconsistency of the government’s punitive approach is another problem.

Until now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to force construction sites and other non-essential workplaces, including schools, to close. Both workplaces pose a community transmission threat because, to operate, they break the physical distancing rules.

Other responses

Britain is implementing similar punitive measures to Australia. Police there have been given powers to arrest or fine individuals for breaking physical distancing restrictions. Reports indicate the directives have been implemented inconsistently and often in “confusing ways”.

In Malaysia, police have been given powers to enforce restrictions on physical distancing by any means necessary, including arresting and detaining individuals until they are sentenced to prison or given a court fine.

The Philippines government is deploying the military and police to enforce the most stringent physical distancing measures: people can be detained and arrested for simply shopping for food.

In Portugal, the government has used emergency powers to suspend the right of workers to take strike action.

Singapore and South Korea have adopted strong measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak without resorting to draconian measures or law enforcement to enforce social distancing.

A UNAIDS 2020 paper, Rights in the time of COVID-19: Lessons from HIV for an effective, community-led response, argues restrictions to protect public health must be of limited duration, proportionate and that blanket compulsory bans are rarely effective. It also says individuals should not be criminalised for breaching restrictions.

While we should follow health authorities’ advice to adopt physical distancing measures, we should not fall for governments’ efforts to enact greater law-and-order measures aimed at suppression and the winding back of our hard-won civil rights.

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