Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Freedom of Association in the Time of the Coronavirus

by Professors Kimberley Brownlee (Warwick) and James Nickel (U. Miami), guest contributors

Because of the risk of illness and death from COVID-19, we are now enduring a long season of social constriction. In many places, we have moved from the comparatively mild practice of social distancing, where we keep others at a safe distance, to the more extreme situation of living in a lockdown and shutdown. In this lockdown, we are legally required to stay at home except for a few departures to obtain essential goods and services. And, under the shutdown, most businesses, schools, restaurants, sports events, and recreational facilities are closed. These sorts of restrictions are ones which most of us have never known on a small scale, let alone on a global scale.

These measures limiting our contact with other people seem to violate our freedom of association, which is freedom to choose whether to associate with other people at all and, when we do choose to associate, to choose which particular people to have as our associates. Freedom of association is an enumerated human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20) declares that: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Attempts to ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the spread of the virus have limited not only whom we can be with, but also what we can do together. Current restrictions on our freedom of movement, for example, profoundly limit our associative activities. We cannot attend a parent’s funeral, visit sick or aged relatives, go out for dinner with a group, or even congregate in a park for a picnic or a protest against our government’s response to the virus. Restrictions on our freedom of movement render assembly difficult if not impossible. And, banning assemblies of large groups severely limits our freedoms to associate for expressive and political purposes.

Lockdowns can heighten our feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Isolation – even voluntary self-isolation – is often painful to us because we are a deeply social species. Isolation is also risky, as older people who live alone know all too well. Prolonged social isolation can trigger loneliness which, when chronic and acute, is correlated with health risks like increased blood pressure, reduced immunity, self-harm, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts.

With all that said, reasonable limits on our freedoms of association and movement during the pandemic are necessary and permissible. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, includes a right to freedom of association but with qualifications that allow it to be balanced against a variety of other values including the protection of health. The right to freedom of movement has similar qualifications. To be permissible, however, limitations during emergencies must be necessary, proportional, and non-discriminatory.

Morally we have duties to reach out to lonely and isolated people who have a great need for social connections while also having a low supply of associates and little capacity to do much about it. We have social-assistive duties in ordinary times too, but we have them even more

pressingly now during this pandemic, because isolated people’s ways to alleviate their own suffering are fewer and their needs greater.

During this period of lockdowns and shutdowns, our ability to visit lonely people physically is greatly restricted, but reaching out to them through other means remains possible. Furthermore, those of us who are at home, but not working from home may have greater free time to engage in outreach. Staying connected with others in a variety of ways gives us valuable activities that can supplement – or replace – the couch-surfing we tend to do when we are at loose ends. Our own isolation can make us more receptive to unsolicited bids for connection. In all of these ways, we can be useful to each other. Supporting other people is one of the primary ways we can find meaning and value in our lives.

Undeniably, motivations matter morally and legally. But, our best motivations display a double harmony in which we support others and ourselves simultaneously. It would be perverse to see all of our efforts to support other people as cloaked egoism. Feeling pleasure and self-worth in supporting others is a legitimate companion effect of supporting others for their own sake. When people give us a chance to be useful to them, they benefit us: social connections are highly reciprocal. And, one way to show that we’re not just ‘using’ the people we reach out to is to stay connected with them once this crisis passes.

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