Defend Truth


Balancing personal liberties with collective responsibility in a time of pandemic


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

In Europe, we have seen liberal democracies like Italy, Spain and France basically abandoning ‘democratic’ norms and enforcing what is, for all intents and purposes, martial law to stop ‘I’ll do what I want’ individuals from endangering everyone around them.

The early political and cultural lesson from this Covid-19 outbreak is that it has highlighted the dangers that come with true democracy.

Winston Churchill famously said “many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government … except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy brings a cultural shift until we all believe “don’t tell us what to do, we have our rights”. And so the richest and most democratic countries in the world are battling this Covid-19 outbreak in a way that dictatorships are not.

Historically, we need to remind ourselves that democracy itself is famously flawed: because voting is essentially an emotional personal reaction and not a rational, fact-based choice – often the best sales representative and corrupt manipulator wins, and not the best qualified or most capable. So voting gave us Hitler, Trump, Berlusconi, Mugabe, Zuma and Boris.

And so we see the US and UK governments bungling their reactions to the virus with jaw-dropping incompetence – and the economic, social and health consequences for those countries are going to be felt for years to come. The sheer level of unpreparedness in their respective health systems comes after years of short-term political wins, instead of long-term public welfare. The short-term result is that the majority of Britons and Americans seem unable to understand that they are each a vital link in a potentially disastrous chain. As the Disney heiress tweeted about the crowds at Disneyland this week “what the f***?”

In Europe, we see liberal democracies like Italy, Spain and France basically abandoning “democratic” norms, and enforcing what is, for all intents and purposes, martial law to stop “I’ll do what I want” individuals from endangering everyone around them.

As a full-blown one-party dictatorship, China has been a lesson in both the dangers and benefits of autocratic governments. First, the denial of the facts for propaganda reasons (incidentally, almost the exact reaction of the US and UK). But immediately, the problem is acknowledged, the full force of centralised political power that allows massive medical mobilisation and unpopular personal repression comes into play. The result is that within two months, the Chinese are weeks away from being able to declare it will basically be back to business as usual, with Covid-19 being contained, controlled and the country coronavirus free.

In Asian democracies like Korea, Japan, and in particular, Singapore (essentially an anocracy), the cultural mentality of “we are all subservient to a popular good”, and the ability of the government to take strong steps for the benefit of everyone has produced results which must leave the EU leaders dismayed and envious.

In Japan, the first case was identified on 3 January 2020. And so far, they have only 829 cases and 29 deaths. In South Korea, the first case was confirmed on 20 January 2020 and subsequent infections grew at an alarming rate, but tough and non-democratic action has brought it under control so that the spread of the virus has slowed down dramatically, topping out at 8,500 cases and down to 100 new cases per day.

But it is Singapore that is a role model for how to cope. A densely populated hub of international travel has managed to keep their growth rate so low that after two months, there are only 255 cases and no deaths. Calm, fact-based decisions, clear communication and “we will all do what is best for everyone” worked, so everyone listened and understood.

So what is this early takeaway? For me, it is that in these three Asian democracies there remains a cultural balance of personal rights and collective responsibility. And in “true liberal democracy”, which I believe in, we have abandoned the importance of collective responsibility. So it is okay to criticise a government even if you don’t vote? Is the right to say what you want, even if it is a factual lie (Trump’s tweets), more important than the facts that might save lives? How do we balance the facts with the right to have opinions? Surely facts have to matter most – and opinions should matter less, even if it only reduces media hysteria, which causes overreaction or blanket denial.

These questions are not easily answered, but the social media interference and micro-targeting of the Brexit vote and 2016 US election have already shown us how vulnerable democracy is to an online viral disease and manipulation. (And Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google etc. making a fortune off spreading this political disease of lies have to be part of that problem). Now we see that to battle a medical virus does not require democracy, where every voice counts – it requires facts and the ruthless enforcement of individual responsibility as part of the national good.

So maybe this horrible virus, with its terrible human toll, may wake us up to the fact that with every individual right comes collective responsibility. Surely we would all be better off if that were true? If we believe in democracy, we need to make this part of our thinking, our systems and our laws. DM


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