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With Coronavirus, Will Authoritarian Impulses Prevail?

We must maintain a balance between aggressive measures to contain, and an abuse of authority that might make things worse.

A member of the National Guard wears medical gloves while handing out bags of food to residents of New Rochelle near a one-mile radius “containment area” set up to halt the Coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 12, 2020 in New Rochelle, New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As the number of coronavirus infections topped 3,100 in the U.S. as of Sunday afternoon, including 63 deaths, major cities appear to be considering lock-downs as we have seen in Europe—everything shut down by the government—including borders—except for essential grocery stores and pharmacies.

Hoboken, N.J., which has has had a reported three cases of coronavirus as of Sunday, has shut down all bars and restaurants and has instituted a curfew of 10 p.m. for all residents. Hoboken is also suspending street cleaning, closing playing fields, recreation facilities, and playgrounds, as well as day cares and pop-up camps for children, and limiting City Hall services. Senior activities had already been canceled.

As of Sunday there were 72 cases identified and two deaths in New Jersey, which is one of the country’s most densely populated states (8.9 million), and the Democratic governor is reportedly considering a state-wide shutdown.

According to CNN, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio reacted Sunday to the Hoboken curfew and questions about his own city’s schools still opening by saying,“every option is on the table in a crisis,” the Democrat said.

Also in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the Army Corps of Engineers should be mobilized,  equipping facilities like military bases or college dorms to serve as temporary medical centers. There have been 524 cases identified in the state as of Sunday, most of them connected to the New Rochelle outbreak.

That town is now in “containment,” assisted by the National Guard.

We all know now that the dictatorship in China suppressed early information about the spread of coronavirus in Wuhan, severely impeding authorities’ ability to contain and treat their citizens. They are a major reason for the spread of COVID-19 across the globe right now. South Korea, on the other hand, sprang into action, was transparent about the spread, instituted testing immediately, and appears to be containing its numbers.

There is no reason to believe that U.S. officials aren’t trying their best to embrace transparency or keep a balance between issuing common sense public health mandates and maintaining civil liberties for their citizens.

“We are trying to engage in radical transparency with the American public,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters during the early days of the crisis.

The worst that could happen, a Christian Science Monitor article noted, is if the government started becoming a strict gatekeeper on the information flow: “A strength of the democratic system is we should be hearing about cases from health care facilities,” says Amanda Glassman, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “We don’t have any ban on talking about people who have disease or hospitals that are overwhelmed.”

Thanks to a relatively open press and social media here in the U.S., it would be difficult for the government to institute a Beijing-like clampdown on reports about the virus, but as citizens we need to be sure that powers that incline toward authoritarian control in times of crisis—and we know they exist—don’t prevail as conditions get weirder and weirder, at our airports, the border, shopping centers, whatever. Remember, a crackdown could very easily come at the local level first, and not from Washington. So far talk about inter-state travel restrictions has been that, just talk.

By now, most of us on Twitter have seen this video of Chinese authorities strong-arming residents and dragging them out of their homes. After the government acknowledged that the virus was spreading, the controlling communist party went into punitive lockdown mode, deploying draconian measures to keep its people inside and not talking. We know people have been arrested for social media posts and for not complying with the lockdowns, and all of the government’s social controls and total surveillance are being used to track behavior and activity.

This is a reminder why we must be vigilant about protecting our civil liberties here in the U.S., as a matter of course in keeping our communities and citizens safe and healthy. We’re frightened yes, but let’s not be complacent, and turn into something we won’t recognize tomorrow.

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC since 2007, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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