The Coronavirus Outbreak and JS Mill’s Essay ‘On Liberty’ | By Ashwin Vardarajan

The Coronavirus Outbreak and JS Mill’s Essay ‘On Liberty’
By Ashwin Vardarajan

‘Quarantine’, which means the “imposition of isolation”, originates from the Italian words “quaranta giorni” meaning ‘40 days’. Although it is not construed literally in English, quarantining has held substantial importance to humanity in the times of a pandemic or an epidemic, like during the time of plagues in Europe. In quarantine, a person is not expected to come out on the streets and everyone is expected to maintain a certain level of distance from each other in order to avoid the multiplication of the prevalent disease. Evidently, quarantining contributes to a limitation on a person’s liberty. So is fate that we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic called Coronavirus. For political science students’ minds, this situation reiterates John Stuart Mill’s understanding of liberty in a famous essay of his. This article aims to correlate this pandemic with Mill’s understanding of individual liberty.

An Insight into Coronavirus
Coronavirus is a disease which allegedly originated at the wet markets in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organisation (“WHO”) has notes it as a respiratory infection ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). These problems are communicable through air, human contact and other means involving human presence. Unlike common cold or flu, coronavirus is young and does not have a cure yet. Although the disease’s consequences are contingent to a person’s or community’s immunity, it has led to widespread death worldwide.
A temporary solution by nations across – in the absence of vaccines or conclusive treatments – is quarantining. Most nations have imposed complete lockdowns. Nobody is allowed to come outside their homes except for accessing ration shops, pharmacies or other essential commodities required for survival. Quarantining, quite evidently, is a limitation on a person’s liberty. ‘Liberty’ means the power or scope to act as one pleases. However, lockdowns and quarantines prohibit a person from exercising this liberty unless for exceptional purposes. This entire drill by the state and the people promotes general welfare by not allowing the virus to spread rapidly, thereby rescinding the possibility of the harm capable of being caused by it. This entire discussion forms the crux of Mill’s essay.

Mill and Liberty and State’s Obligations During Coronavirus
In his essay titled ‘On Liberty, Mill was faced with an issue. He wanted to find a balance between how an individual has plenary scope to exercise liberty and how the state can impose reasonable restrictions on such liberty if it starts interfering with others’ liberty. He divided individual action into two fractions: self-regarding actions and others-regarding actions. Self-regarding actions affect no one other than the agent who exercises his/her liberty, whereas others-regarding actions are “those actions of an individual which concern others and not with actions which merely concern himself”. Vide such demarcation, he gave way for state to exercise its powers for curtailing individual liberty for a legitimate purpose.
The state, in order to uphold the negative conception of liberty, has limited powers of expelling individual actions which may demean others individuals’ exercise of liberty. The ‘negative’ concept of liberty, herein, is the duty of the state to maintain conditions which will aid a person in exercising his liberty and eliminate other-regarding actions of individuals, so far as they render an individual incapable from enjoying his/her own liberty. This premises, as discussed, forms the core of the subsequent discussion which I shall have in relation to state imposed restrictions and order of quarantine by different nations during the outbreak of coronavirus.
On the basis of the premises, Mill’s understanding of liberty helps us realise how quarantines and lockdowns are examples of states upholding the negative conception of liberty. Coronavirus entails to it far-reaching standards of illness in comparison to something like common cold. It is the capability of transforming into life threatening pneumonia. Further, its communicability is on par with common cold. If a person stays quarantine indoors, he/she restricts his/her other-regarding actions by not being a potential host for the disease and by not spreading the disease if such person is infected. Thus, quarantining breaks this chain of other-regarding actions resulting in the worsening of a pandemic, thereby giving it a form of a pervasive social restriction.

State Actions Worldwide
There are various examples of how governments around the world have implemented lockdown policies. The Indian government has permitted the people to travel in order to access and buy essential commodities like vegetables, medicines etc. However, policemen and policewomen have been patrolling streets across all cities to ensure that people do not accumulate in groups and abide by the norms of social distancing in the time of a pandemic. Thus, in India, mass gatherings are distinguished from movement per se. Italy – which is one of the worst hit state in Europe – has seen several politicians coming out on social media, heatedly urging their citizens to stay indoors whilst almost threatening them with legal sanctions of jail and criminal charges upon violation of quarantine sanctions. Per contra, USA has not adopted a homogeneous policy of a nationwide lockdown and individual states have imposed state-wide lockdowns at their own perusal and discretion. These examples show different methods in which countries are dealing with Coronavirus. They depict the gist of an unconscionable attempt worldwide to fight a pandemic.
However, it must be kept in mind that states’ obligations are limited to the extent of not letting self-regarding actions covert into others-regarding actions. In order words, they should be proportional and not of a greater magnitude. Anything in excess to this is against the idea of due process and a state’s duty to proactively protect people in its territories. Additionally, people too have to be conscious enough to understand the situation’s gravity. We must consider quarantining a necessary and a needful exercise, and collectively cooperate to establish a faultless relationship with our states, and effortlessly fight the dissonant chord of Coronavirus.

This article has been written by Ashwin Vardarajan. Ashwin is a 2nd-year student of law, pursuing BA LLB (Hons.) from Symbiosis Law School Pune. He has a niche for constitutional law, public policy, and international law.


All views presented in the article belong solely to the writer. The editor does not support or condemn the views, and neither does The Global Telescope. The Global Telescope remains impartial and promotes every individual's right to freedom of speech and expression while not holding any responsibility for the views presented whatsoever.


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