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How 'war' with coronavirus could lead to lasting government overreach

www.pri.org
7 min read
difficult
Under war-like circumstances, history shows there is a very fine line between protecting citizens and eroding rights — and that line can be exploited or extended in times of great uncertainty.
"We are at war."

So say world leaders as countries struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. The unprecedented outbreak has pushed governments to take extraordinary measures unheard of in peacetime — including closing borders and instituting nationwide lockdowns. People all over the globe are increasingly required to carry permits or face fines for leaving their homes.

"This crisis could ultimately have an impact as serious as a world war in terms of the number of people affected, in terms of the impact on the economy and on people's way of life," former US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns told The World.

Governments have gotten the message.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday the invisible spread of the virus "requires a call to arms," as he locked down the country.

United States President Donald Trump echoed the sentiment, tweeting, "The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!" He also referred to himself as a "wartime president" in a Wednesday press briefing, a statement that is without legal significance.

COVID-19 — which poses inordinate risk to the elderly and immunocompromised — has required extensive government measures across the globe to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus. Vulnerable health infrastructure systems unprepared for massive patient influxes also need support.

Related: Is South Korea's approach to containing coronavirus a model for the rest of the world?

Under such circumstances, history has shown there is a very fine line between protecting citizens and eroding their civil rights — and that line can be exploited in times of great uncertainty.

"... once governments develop new capacities, they find it hard to let them lapse." Scott Radnitz, University of Washington

"Even without any malevolent intent, major economic crises and wars usually lead to an expansion of the state and greater intrusions into people's lives," said Scott Radnitz, associate professor of international studies at the…
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