Coronavirus and social contract

Now we are living in difficult times of coronavirus pandemic, where many countries are enforcing complete lockdown and quarantine. Any quarantine is a restriction imposed on people. Two months ago, I was able to move across Spain, meet my friends in Barcelona and enjoy my time outside of a flat. Now the situation is very different: I do not have a right to move and even be outside without a reason. I have many fewer rights now than two months ago. This is a disruption of the social contract. Many people in Spain decided to give up more of their rights to the state to be safe and protected from the corona infection. The state, then, took more responsibility for the nation and expended the enforcement of new restrictions.

The concept of the social contract was discussed by Thomas Hobbes, a political philosopher of the 17th century. In nutshell social contract explains the authority of the state over each citizen. Citizens are giving up some of their freedoms and right to the state, whereas the state is creating a safe environment for all by gaining a monopoly of violence. This monopoly of violence is a key instrument of enforcing laws and control of people’s behaviour in society. Thus, only state officials could legitimately use power to protect and regulate a common order. According to Hobbes, this compromise is necessary to prevent society from falling to anarchy and disorder.

Until both ends of the social contract: citizens and a state are mutually agreed with the importance of such drastic changes and the contract is still valid. In other words, as citizens, we agreed to concede even more of our rights to the state to guarantee that the state will deal with pandemic faster.

So, what?

Now, I am more concerned about how the social contract would be balanced back after the pandemic. There is no doubt that quarantine will be lifted at some point in time. Would the state give back all the rights it took from us after the pandemic? It depends. In my opinion, in countries with sophisticated democratic institutions, such a transition is more feasible. The strong civic society and free press would be a good mediator that the state will give the rights back to citizens, otherwise, the ruling party/parties would be blamed. Nevertheless, there are still countries with not sophisticated or even without functioning democratic rule. These states had an over-balanced social contract (to state) even before the pandemic. Would these states give all rights back to citizens when the danger of infection would be less? Important to point out that I am not only talking here about rights of free movement (also rights to freely go to foreign countries), but also rights of privacy of my movements across countries (that I’m not tracked down by GPS) or privacy of my online messages. Today when in a panic we gave up most of our rights we have a risk to find ourselves in a panopticon tomorrow. Would it be a critical demise of democracy in states which were not even fully democratic before?

*This article was written for the Lockdown 2020 – Essay/Blog competition.

Author: Islam Ishmukhametov