pandemic and freedom

By Ignacio Munyo.

Published on March 02, 2021, on El País.

The grueling fight against the pandemic is now about to mark its anniversary. Every time he refers to the matter, Uruguay’s President, Luis Lacalle Pou, emphasizes that “freedom is the most important issue” because the dilemma of restricting it is always latent.

“Not going for a mandatory quarantine was motivated by the belief that Uruguayans are lovers of freedom and exercise it with responsibility and solidarity,” he added, praising Gervasio Artigas in his birth anniversary celebration.

However, the government’s decisions were not unanimous nor exempt from harsh criticism. The debate between “responsible freedom” and “mandatory quarantine” was endless. When the situation becomes more complicated, the demands for limiting freedom in favor of a greater good multiply.

Deep down, the way in which governments, political parties, and people have dealt with the pandemic has a lot to do with their perception of freedom. These perceptions differ in the strong conviction that individual freedom is above the collective imperative. Historical perceptions go from the deep respect for Locke and Hume’s individual freedom of thought to the restricted individual freedom of Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract,’ in which every individual’s freedom is consolidated into a single collective freedom.

These Enlightenment Anglo-Saxon and French personalities set clear differences in the philosophical inspiration of the independence movements, as well as in the development of the new institutions in the European colonies established in America towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. This stark contrast was portrayed by Luis Alberto de Herrera in his work La Revolución Francesa y Sudamérica: a book that I recommend reading.

The dilemma of individual freedom delegation is at the very core of liberal thought. Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884) argued that “it is an essential condition of modern freedom that some of it be delegated to a certain number of leaders or representatives (…) That delegation embraces one half of the power of the country and is the one that takes the name of government itself. The other half of popular power remains undelegated and under the responsibility of the country itself, which exercises it immediately and directly. This is what we commonly call freedom.” Individual freedom is perceived as a sort of guarantee of the power delegated to the government. And, therefore, it must be exercised constantly.

Extreme situations—such as a pandemic—call into question these concepts, which are pushed to the limit. Different conceptions do not differ in individual freedom restriction measures but

in the effort to look for alternative ways to avoid them. At the end of the day, what the current government does—or does not do—ends up being explained by its most profound essence: their philosophical idea of freedom.

Everyone will have their own opinion. All these are all valid. Personally, I relate to Alberdi’s words, which manage to capture the complexity of the dilemma: “being free means governing oneself,” but also “thinking day and night about common and general interests. Freedom is a load, a burden, a responsibility: it is not a delight. It means giving one’s time and labor, with no hesitation, in whichever area one is designated to, for the sake of the collective work.