Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely?

One of the earliest angles on the coronavirus pandemic was that this was a story of the draconian extremes that an authoritarian government can impose on its people. This angle on the events in Wuhan flourished especially while the media and most governments were not taking the pandemic seriously. So we’ve had a lot of hand-wringing: what can western governments do about this, because obviously we can’t do that?

At the worst extremes we have people throwing up their hands and saying, “well we’re screwed, white people will never do what they’re told, unlike those obedient Asians — and it’s not like we can make them, right?”. That attitude is completely crazy. It’s not true, and it’s part of the general atmosphere of extremely mixed messages that have made the crisis so bad.

For instance, consider the Imperial College report to the British government,
which modelled out the likely effects of different policies. Their model assumes that only 70% of people instructed to self-isolate after a coronavirus diagnosis will comply, for a total reduction in contacts of 75%. For stricter measures that quarantine entire households on one positive diagnosis, they assume a compliance rate of only 50%. We’re shutting down entire economies, and yet we view ourselves as helpless to enforce quarantine on confirmed or presumed positive cases?

People who are tested or presumed positive will obey quarantine if they understand that they might go to prison if they don’t. This is in no way an extreme or authoritarian response. It’s completely consistent with civil liberties. Any individual freedom is always constrained by reasonable expectations of harm. None of us have a general-purpose freedom to act however we want regardless of the risks to other people. The specifics of the coronavirus pandemic are unusual, but the general principle isn’t.

Take the most extreme case: someone has tested positive and been instructed to self-isolate, but the person ignores the instruction and infects someone else, who later dies of the infection. This is an act of extreme and callous negligence. The person who left quarantine was informed of a specific risk, they ignored that information, and they have caused someone else’s death for a frivolous purpose. It is not unreasonable to imprison that person for many years in order to deter that sort of negligence.

That’s the general standard we have in our societies for actions that are actually negligent, that really could cause foreseeable harms and risks of death. So what message does it send to someone if they test positive for coronavirus, and the state merely asks them nicely to comply with quarantine procedures? What reasonable inferences does that invite?

People aren’t taking self-isolation and quarantine procedures seriously because our governments aren’t actually acting like they’re serious. We’re all constantly presented with arguments that aim to persuade us to change our behaviour to reduce some remote risks, or achieve some remote benefit. We’ve all learned to pick over these arguments and weigh them against our own considerations. This also leads to a bit of an arms race: arguments convincing us to recycle, practice safe sex, use less water, buy local, or whatever else are all competing, so we expect their claims to be at least a little overstated.

We’re saying that obeying quarantine orders is an urgent matter of life-and-death but we’re not acting accordingly. Naturally, people notice the subtext. They don’t bother to argue. They’ve played this game before. They’re happy to agree that, sure that’s a thing I should do…There are lots of things I should. If we act like obeying quarantine is just another optional supererogatory thing, it’s no surprise that people weigh it up, and take it or leave it.

Our society is built on both individual freedom and individual responsibility. If you fail to take due caution in your actions, and you cause easily foreseeable harm, your actions may result in criminal penalties. The simple problem is that we’re not framing it this way, and that’s hopelessly confusing. We’re in the rare situation where it would actually help to have some zero-tolerance rhetoric from governments and prosecutors. We desperately need guidance from governments that the situation is grave, the risks are real, and if you are not careful you could find yourself in prison for the rest of your life, precisely because other people may well be found dead.

Think of it this way. If you get in your car and drive around drunk, the maximum number of families you might kill is one. If you’re confirmed or even presumed positive for coronavirus and you just go about your day, there’s no real limit to how many additional deaths your actions could eventually cause. Why should anyone have any sympathy if you’re punished for such extreme negligence? You weren’t even drunk when you did it.