Freedom: An Illusion in Corona Times
Am I truly a free individual or is freedom just an illusion? Is freedom equitable to a state of virtual reality? I have often been overwhelmed by queries surrounding the idea of freedom ever since the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bombarded with news about thousands of deaths occurring everyday in several countries, I am intrigued by the responses of people and some states and their approaches to the current situation of crisis. While the public in countries like UK and Australia were, until recently, defying government restrictions of movement and venturing out into public spaces like beaches, the Trump administration seems more concerned regarding the slowdown of the economy if lockdown continues to be imposed across USA for a prolonged period given that the country is experiencing only partial lockdown in some of its states.
Those who feared civic liberty violations around this time also recently participated in anti-lockdown protests in the US. It remains a fact that at present, USA has the highest number of COVID cases in the world as infected numbers reach above 30 lakhs with more than 1 lakh deaths so far. The scenario is no better in Brazil, India or even UK. In India too, borders have been sealed, passenger communication services and businesses are shut down, thousands of migrants suffer while trying to reach their homes and restrictions have been imposed over large public gatherings.
Under normal circumstances, these steps might seem like an assault on civic liberties. However, we also need to remind ourselves that we are not living under normal circumstances today. While most democratic nations are built on the foundation of the idea of freedom, for once, can we halt and introspect about the very notion of freedom itself? Though we may treat freedom as our birthright, our right to freedom is also closely associated with a sense of responsibility in our actions and attitudes not only towards ourselves but also the society at large. Along with it being our birthright, we need to remind ourselves that this right is someone else’s too. The moment one may decide to unfollow some of the restrictions around this time by venturing out of one’s home, one not only tends to jeopardise one’s own health but other people’s health and safety too.
This also brings me to reflect upon the socio-political attitudes emerging under such trying circumstances towards other individuals and communities. As we embark upon a spree of blame-game often underlined with racist, communal and class connotations, the spread of the virus has been adorned with several hues and shades. From creating the term ‘Chinese virus’, blaming Kanika Kapoor for her irresponsible behaviour, attacking the communists in Kerala, vilifying a particular religion due to the Tablighi Jamaat incident in New Delhi to the spreading of panic in society through the circulation of fake news and information via social media, the pandemic has also brought to the forefront the virus that is embedded in our minds as compassion and sensitivity – two most desired virtues to cope with the deadly contagion – is what we lack as a society today.
Launching scathing attacks on individuals and communities and practicing a discriminatory attitude would only aggravate the crisis further. Crisis is the only real circumstance that has the capacity to bring out either the best or the worst in humankind. It would be futile to treat disrespect, apathy, insensitivity and ignorance as one’s right to freedom of expression as these impinge upon another’s right to identity.
Hence, freedom needs to be understood within the parameters of ethics. Moreover, there are two contradictory realities of freedom that the pandemic has brought forward. Before lockdown became the norm in our daily lives, many of us were busy cribbing about the hectic work schedules that we endure daily at the workplace, thus, not finding enough time for our family and friends. Now that we actually have the opportunity to indulge in the latter, most of us whine about being bored of remaining confined within the four walls of our homes. In our never-ending desire to complain, we forget that while many of us are blessed to remain within the comfort of our homes during these dreaded times, there are others such as doctors and nurses who are at the frontline battling this deadly pandemic, the homeless on the streets fully vulnerable to the disease and migrant workers from the cities desperately striving to reach their homes. Clearly, no matter what circumstance life throws at us most of us would be forever craving for freedom from our current conditions.
This kind of dissatisfaction that we surround ourselves with emerges out of a high pedestal that we attribute to the ideal of freedom – forever unattainable, no matter what situation in life we are faced with. The very abstractness of this idea tends to lead one either into a state of disillusionment or enlightenment under a given circumstance. It is, therefore, our own perspective towards the idea of freedom that would bring a difference into our own lives, our surroundings including the lives of others. It can be attained by finding peace within our inner selves, in acceptance and tolerance of others – the three cornerstones that give rise to peaceful co-existence and tiding over catastrophes.
So, next time, when we are unhappy and grumble about life not turning out the way we desire it to, it would be pertinent to remind ourselves that even a bird is limited by the sky in which it flies!
(The author is Research Scholar in Modern Indian History. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are her own.)