The case of Milo Hsieh, a Taiwanese student living in Washington who was studying in Belgium, prompts me to write again about civil rights in exceptional situations, and about what we are willing to accept as a society when it comes to balancing our rights with our health.
The BBC reports that Milo Hsieh decided to return to Taiwan when the university he was at in Belgium cancelled his study program due to the pandemic. On his return, because he had been in Europe, the Taiwanese authorities told him to self-isolate at his home for 14 days, warning him that his phone would be digitally tracked to ensure compliance, as happens with criminals, but without a warrant. To return home from the airport, since he was totally prohibited from using public transport, he had to use a specially equipped “quarantine taxi” and was notified that for the next two weeks, he and his family would not be able to set foot outside their home, not even to go shopping.
This is Taiwan, a country ranked 31st in the world in the Democracy Index. Below 23, that ranking considers countries “flawed democracies” (as a comparison, US is ranked 25th in that same ranking, and therefore considered a flawed democracy too), but Taiwan, although it has its issues, is a country that is generally considered to respect the civil rights of its citizens. And yet, when Milo Hsieh’s smartphone ran out of battery at 7:30 am, four representatives from different local agencies called him within an hour and a patrol car was immediately dispatched to his house to check if he was home, while a text message was sent notifying him that his signal had been lost, and warning him of possible sanctions or even arrest if he had broken his quarantine.
Such measures would be described as dictatorial under normal circumstances. The question now is how we should see them in the context of a state of emergency imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? A global pandemic changes the balance we make between privacy and civil rights, but as a result of its methods Taiwan is not only preventing infection and deaths, it is also managing to keep its economy running. If we compare these strict measures to those taken in European countries, we understand why the infection is proving so difficult to bring under control: ours are not really about…