We have all seen living standards and life expectancy rise steadily over the last century. And for those of us lucky enough to have lived in the Western world, we have enjoyed peace and security for as long as most of us can remember.
But if the current pandemic has shown us anything, it is that things can change dramatically and very quickly. In just two weeks the US has lost half the jobs created over the last decade; no wonder Nouriel Roubini likens the impact of Covid-19 to that of an asteroid hitting planet Earth.
As the jaw-dropping economic toll of the pandemic becomes clearer, the case for an extended lockdown gets ever harder to make. Each day that goes by under lockdown sees more businesses being impacted and puts some semblance of a recovery further out of reach.
While astonishing in scale, government support packages and central bank stimulus can only go so far. There is now a real risk of mass unemployment, the implications of which are profound — not just for the economy but for society too.
We now face what has been described as a “coronavirus trilemma.” We can end the lockdown and risk triggering a second wave of infections more nocuous than the initial outbreak. Alternatively we can maintain the lockdown until a vaccine is ready, but this would likely do unimaginable damage to businesses and society.
The third option is to relax some of the restrictions whilst ensuring that those who have or may have the virus remain isolated, necessitating some form of surveillance and behavior conditioning. The tools range from the less invasive and seemingly helpful (such as alerting citizens when they are in close proximity to those that are infected) to the frankly Orwellian (in mid March, Israel’s government announced plans to access data on people’s phones to track their movement and contact with others).
Even if they wanted to, it would be extremely difficult for politicians to opt for the first option. So we will likely have to choose between economic catastrophe and an erosion of civil liberties. We may try gradually rolling back some of the restrictions (this has already begun in Austria). But without mass testing, contact tracing, and enforced isolation, we will likely find ourselves back in lockdown facing the same trilemma.
While some fiercely object to any threat to our privacy, the unremitting popularity of Facebook — even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal — suggests that most people are happy to give up some of their data in order to access something they deem beneficial.
Surely, if offered a choice between suffering financial hardship and a temporary invasion of privacy and civil liberties, many people would opt for the latter.
Of course, concerns over surveillance creep are justified. If, by sacrificing our privacy, we were able to stop the spread of the virus and overcome the pandemic, then we would soon ask whether similar surveillance tech could help us solve other societal issues. Perhaps we could eliminate tax evasion, address soaring crime rates, or help healthcare providers treat other diseases and save more lives?
In order to prevent a permanent invasion of privacy, we could have expiration dates embedded and locked into the software, effectively setting it to self-destruct after a given period of time.
If Brexit was an act of extreme economic self harm, then opting for an extended lockdown would be reaching for a cleaver. If there was ever a reason to deploy the total force of software, then surely this is it.