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View from africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the South African press on developments
in the nation's risk-adjusted strategy to manage the spread of Coronavirus COVID-19 [Photo: GCIS/Flickr]

An interesting thing has been happening in the US, where simply asking people to wear masks in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19 has turned into a hot debate about personal freedom. In late June, voters in Florida county testified before their local council that making masks mandatory in public places was not just an affront to their personal freedom, but antithetical to the entire founding premise of the country. They were adamant and loud, which in the US’s current political climate doubles up as justification. The debate about the mask mandate has gone all the way to top of government, where President Donald Trump has been forced to backtrack somewhat on his previously adamant refusal to wear a mask, even in situations where it was required for everyone else – for example during an April visit to a healthcare centre in Maine.

Kenya, like many other African countries, has made wearing masks in public mandatory, but unlike the US the debate is not about personal freedoms, but the behaviour of the police, who have a long history of brutality against civilians. Since the beginning of a nationwide lockdown in April, the police have killed 15 people in extra-judicial executions while ostensibly enforcing government Covid-19 directives, including the wearing of masks. The country has a history of disproportionately violent policing against young people in informal settlements, and the majority of those killed so far fit this demographic. A number of people from these neighbourhoods have also been unjustly detained and fined as the police have taken the mask mandate as an opportunity to expand their reign of terror.

The debate around masks is just one of the many ways the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing everyone to go back to the fundamentals of politics and society, to the ideas developed by philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that humans are born free in nature but have to cede certain freedoms in order to live in organized society. The simple idea at the centre of living in a society is that we are generally better off together than alone in the forest at the mercy of animals. But we have to make some sacrifices in order to make the system work. Living in a society is a constant balancing act between personal freedoms and public obligations, which must be continually adjusted in light of new information and developments.

But citizens and governments around the world seem to have lost sight of the basics and are stuck in meaningless, cyclical debates. It serves no public interest for citizens to use their personal freedom to jeopardize their own and other people’s safety. But, similarly, it serves no-one’s interests for the government to use violence to inflict irreparable harm on citizens in the name of public health. Let’s get back to a sober debate about working together to navigate this unprecedented time in global history.

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