Inequality and Surveillance During the COVID-19 Pandemic

F. A. Hayek Program
The Vienna Circle
17 min readSep 3, 2020


By Kristen R. Collins

COVID-19 has disrupted daily life all over the world. Frustrated by the economic costs, inconvenience, and curtailment of the freedom of movement by broad social distancing measures, people have sought hope in intensive surveillance programs, beyond traditional contact-tracing strategies and dependent on the mass collection of geolocation or Bluetooth data from cellular devices. In response to strict lockdown measures this spring, for instance, Bruno Maçães argues, “The proper framing for the question is as a choice between the current restrictions and a new surveillance system.”[1] He supposes that sacrificing privacy protects our freedoms by allowing communities to enforce restrictions only on those who have been infected or are suspected to have been exposed to the virus. Yet the account of Taiwanese police arriving at the home of a quarantined citizen after his phone briefly lost battery should give us pause.[2]

Furthermore, the persistent problem of police brutality in America suggests that such “targeted” enforcement may be deadly, particularly for Black people. This issue, which activists have been bringing to the public’s attention for years, culminated in mass protests all across the country beginning in May. Indeed, it did not take long for the United States to see examples of differentiated police enforcement of rules about mask-wearing; Black people have been stopped by police for wearing masks as well as abused if they do not.[3]

In considering methods of surveillance solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to ask how these tools will be experienced differently. We have seen inequality shape experiences of the pandemic. As Alice Calder and Stefanie Haeffele highlight, “61 percent of the richest quartile of workers” but “only 9 percent of the poorest” can work from home.[4] Studies of aggregated cell phone data illustrate how these disparities shaped the spread of the pandemic in New York City this past spring. Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, primarily in Manhattan, saw a significant decrease in population during the lockdown, with residents leaving the city for communities as far as Palm Beach, Florida, likely to family members’ homes or vacation homes, easily ignoring restrictions on activities and travel, and gaining more private space in the process.[5] At the same time, lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx, where a large number of essential workers live and commute from, were particularly affected by COVID-19.[6] Recent research of data across various communities shows that higher rates of infection among people of color are due to “poverty and living in densely occupied households, living in localities with greater air pollution, lack of health insurance and being employed in jobs that increase exposure to” the disease.[7]

In my research, I examine the ways in which socioeconomic inequality and the degrading nature of surveillance intertwine using Adam Smith’s account of spectatorship.[8] Smith exhibits a keen sensitivity to the difficulties of being observed and judged by others. Socioeconomic inequality is a crucial factor that shapes these experiences, hindering our ability to empathize with others and resulting in poor moral judgments. Further, Smith’s account of the demoralizing effects of undeserved social censure on an innocent person gives us a model through which we can imagine the harmful effects of prejudice and shame on innocent people.

“How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life” Book Panel

After briefly summarizing my interpretation of Smith’s approach to social spectatorship, I reflect on how it has influenced my thinking regarding the promises and challenges presented by traditional contact-tracing and newer digital surveillance programs being used to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Protecting privacy and minimizing stigma are consistent with public health goals of encouraging people to get tested to stem transmission. At the same time, understanding how inequality shapes the pandemic underscores how crucial it is that people are actually supported and encouraged to follow the procedures of getting tested, isolating, and accessing quality healthcare treatment.

Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship

Although Smith advances a model of judgment similar to the conscience, which he calls the “impartial spectator,” that recognizes the equality of all people,[9] he acknowledges that people often do not judge each other accordingly. Because of the ease with which spectators enter into the joy of others and their reluctance to empathize with painful feelings, like grief or remorse, “we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty.”[10] Although Smith’s focus is on socioeconomic inequality and poverty, he describes the demeaning nature of the public exposure of our problems in more general terms: “Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”[11] Knowing that others struggle to empathize with our problems and challenges, we are anxious about being forced to reveal them to spectators. Rereading these passages in the midst of a pandemic, I am particularly struck by Smith’s claim that the typical spectator fails to empathize with even the physical suffering and death of people who occupy the social ranks below them, albeit in the context of war: “All the innocent blood that was shed in the civil wars, provoked less indignation than the death of Charles I. A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations.”[12]

According to Smith, we disproportionately admire the wealthy and socially eminent and “despise, or at least neglect,” people living in poverty. Much of Smith’s criticisms of inequality center on how it corrupts morality, enabling the wealthy to behave immorally and inspiring the rest of the public to emulate them, seeking the sympathetic attention the immoral wealthy nevertheless receive.[13] However, from the perspective of the person living in poverty, who “superficial minds” “suppose” to have “many great vices…such as an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition,”[14] this moral corruption can be experienced as undeserved social censure from others.

By comparing society’s mistaken assumptions about people living in poverty to Smith’s account of the effects of undeserved social censure on an innocent man,[15] we can appreciate how demoralizing it is to be harshly scrutinized by other members of the community. Despite the innocent man’s better knowledge of his moral character, that people consider him be capable of such lowly immoral actions “seems often, even in his own imagination, to throw a shadow of disgrace and dishonor upon his own character.”[16] Being surrounded by the mistaken judgments of others is enough to obscure even his own self-image. Having a strong sense of moral judgment and of one’s own character is often not enough to inoculate a person against the mistaken judgments of others.

Free to Exchange Inequality and Freedom of Speech

Consequently, Smith’s approach to spectatorship highlights how inequality facilitates the social ostracization of people living in poverty. According to the Smithian framework of spectatorship, inequality and the harms of surveillance are importantly intertwined. Spectators’ failure to empathize with people in distress can exacerbate their suffering. Furthermore, anticipating the limits of spectators’ sympathy shapes how we experience being exposed to others’ judgments.

In my research, I compare Smith’s account to the forms of surveillance enacted through certain paternalistic policies. Programs, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), that include surveillance and disciplinary penalties are found to dampen political participation, especially relative to programs with more neutral or democratic designs, like public housing or Head Start, respectively.[17] Disparaging political and cultural discourse that assumes the moral inferiority of people living in poverty undergirds such policies and contributes to participants’ feelings of ostracization.[18] When programs require participants to answer invasive questions about sexuality and experiences of violence, participants often feel stereotyped or even blamed by administrators for the injustices they experience at the hands of others.[19] People’s accounts of the paternalistic contempt they receive from others bring to mind Smith’s innocent man, devastated by mistaken public censure, despite possessing a well-developed impartial spectator. Smith’s philosophy highlights the morally pernicious nature of the social and interpersonal phenomena through which inequality contributes to these demoralizing experiences of surveillance.

The Importance of Ameliorating Stigma and Inequality During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the COVID-19 pandemic, inequality and public shame shape how people experience being observed and judged by others. Strict disciplinary measures and shaming rather than harm-reduction strategies can cause stigmatization and ultimately undermine public health efforts by discouraging people from getting tested and disclosing their health status to contact-tracing programs.[20] The HIV/AIDS epidemic illustrates how stigmatization and criminalization deters testing and exacerbates problems of abusive policing of members of marginalized communities.[21]

Tools like traditional contact-tracing and new digital technologies such as the Exposure-Notification applied program interface developed by Google and Apple, which provides the technical foundation for governments’ COVID-19 transmission apps, present questions about how privacy, inequality, and shame shape people’s experiences of the pandemic. To be effective, both traditional and digital tools of tracking transmission of the disease must respect privacy in order to prevent shame and stigma from exacerbating the crisis. At the same time, we can see challenges posed by inequality that go beyond Smithian problems of unequal sympathy to the underlying material conditions necessary for people to get tested, isolate, recover, and respect public health guidelines for stemming transmission of the disease.

Traditional contact-tracing measures are essential to stemming epidemics like COVID-19.[22] Contact-tracing entails public health workers getting in touch with people who have tested positive and asking for information about the people they have come in close contact with during the time they may have been infected so that they can ask those people to monitor their symptoms, get tested, and isolate in order to stem further transmission.

Effective contact-tracing relies on special care to maintain people’s privacy and their trust in public authorities so that they will feel comfortable volunteering information. Empathy, the phenomenon so crucial to Smith’s moral philosophy, plays an important role in contact-tracing efforts. Los Angeles County contact-tracer Radhika Kumar shares the challenges she feels in making people feel comfortable over the phone, “How do I convey my message and be empathetic, when I cannot even see their expression when they cry? It’s not just an interview. It’s a conversation. I say, ‘I am here to help, let’s figure this out together.’”[23] Keeping in mind Smith’s account of the limits of our ability to sympathize with others, it is all the more important that contact-tracers are properly trained and resourced in order to avoid shaming people that they contact and to prevent the spread of social stigma from discouraging disclosure and undermining public health efforts.

However, Kumar’s account shows us obstacles beyond the contact-tracers’ empathy that affect whether people comply with contact-tracing. People fear both shame and also material costs that they may incur if other people — friends, families, employers, and government officials — find out that they have tested positive for COVID-19. They are afraid that they cannot stay home without losing their jobs or will face repercussions from bosses and coworkers. People who are undocumented also fear getting in trouble with immigration authorities. Kumar explains her attempts to assuage these fears by telling them the county will notify exposed coworkers without detailing the person’s identity and assuring them that Los Angeles does not provide information to federal immigration authorities. Nevertheless, these fears are indicative of how material and legal factors, such as economic precarity and citizenship status, underlie people’s desires for privacy and why it can be crucial for effective public health responses.

How can contact-tracing programs transcend the limits of sympathy and acknowledge the material factors that affect whether disadvantaged members of communities can follow public health guidelines? The Massachusetts contact-tracing program prioritized recruiting tracers from the hardest-hit communities so that their local knowledge and language skills would help make the process more comfortable and supportive for the people being contacted.[24] As Kumar emphasizes, a contact tracer can be trained and supported to be able to offer specific solutions to an individuals’ concerns, especially by approaching the interaction as one of empathetic education rather than confrontation. Building a rapport with the contact tracer can help a person get connected to resources that may help them as they monitor their health, isolate, and recover, especially if the program is well-resourced and can directly help people get aid. For example, when a woman who worked at a nursing home told a contact tracer with the Massachusetts COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative (CTC) that she would not be paid for time out while sick, the tracer asked the CTC’s attorney to remind the company that paid sick leave was required during the pandemic. The woman was then paid.[25] Nevertheless, while the Massachusetts contact tracer was able to help that particular woman, “only 12 percent of workers in essential industries are guaranteed” sick leave by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), should they or people they care for fall ill to COVID-19, illustrating how much the effectiveness of contact-tracing and other monitoring efforts ultimately depends on other institutional solutions to the crisis.[26]

States have also turned to digital surveillance technologies to supplement traditional contact-tracing efforts. Although digital programs eliminate the direct interaction between a contact tracer and a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, they are not immune to the problems of shame and stigma that can thwart effective tracking and mitigation of disease transmission. Consider, for example, South Korea’s digital tracking infrastructure, which entails the public dissemination of geolocation data of those who have tested positive. Although it has been claimed that South Korea’s digital surveillance protects people’s freedom,[27] there are legal and political obstacles to anything like it being enacted in the United States.[28] Its publicization of people’s movements has inspired the public to scrutinize and harass those who have tested positive, exacerbating fears of social stigmatization which may deter people from getting tested.[29] For example, online commentators scrutinized and harassed two patients who appeared to be in an adulterous relationship on the basis of their geolocation data, causing one of them to suffer from severe anxiety and sleep difficulties.[30] One survey found 62 percent of South Koreans were “more afraid of social consequences of getting the virus than they were of the potential health risks.”[31] That being said, when officials needed to figure out how to encourage testing among members of a demographic that faces major political and social discrimination, the homosexual community, they invested in anonymous testing, helping to stem further transmission.[32] Because privacy and measures to prevent stigma have been found to be consistent with public health goals, we should be skeptical of claims that massive digital surveillance is a straightforward solution that will reduce transmission and allow for the economy to reopen without sacrificing freedom.

The Surveillance State: When Tyranny Comes Home

In response to privacy concerns, Google and Apple have created an Exposure Notification application programming interface (API) that uses a decentralized approach (storing data on individuals’ own devices) and relies on anonymized data about Bluetooth proximity between devices over time rather than geolocation data.[33] The privacy protections enacted by Google and Apple means the technology may be less vulnerable to some of the security and privacy shortcomings of programs used in other countries, and also makes the limited data collected less susceptible to government access.[34] That being said, its effectiveness is currently being debated, and even without geolocation data, an exposure notification can disturb users with shame, fear, and need for accessible and quick testing, even if they are likely to test negative.[35]

Are the people who are afraid to answer a contact tracer’s call any more likely to download and use such an app? Without a contact tracer to empathetically answer their questions and concerns, it is essential that public messaging clearly communicates what information will be collected by apps and whether that information will be used in ways that threaten the well-being of users.

As my colleague Christopher J. Coyne warns, crises can entrench new forms of government power, like surveillance, into the routine workings of our communities.[36] Considering how the disease disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, they are likely to be particularly burdened by the harms of surveillance programs made to counter the disease. That being said, because such apps are reliant on smartphones, they will not even be usable by many members of the population who are particularly vulnerable to being affected by COVID-19. Research conducted in May 2019 found that “roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (29%) don’t own a smartphone in the United States.”[37] Consequently, even with adequate privacy protections and measures to prevent shame and stigma, the apps may not be as directly helpful to low-income communities where many essential workers live.

“Tyranny Comes Home” Book Panel

Some of the challenges of contact-tracing measures and digital exposure-notification apps relate to whether they exacerbate counterproductive problems of stigma and shame. In this manner, they bring to mind Smith’s concerns for how the limits of our ability to sympathize with each other can lead to failures of moral spectatorship and painful experiences of public exposure. Acknowledging the tendencies of spectators to ignore or, alternatively, scrutinize and shame the people who occupy socially-marginalized and economically-disadvantaged positions within society is essential to evaluating whether our responses to COVID-19 will correct rather than exacerbate the ways that inequality already shapes the spread of the pandemic. Further, the effectiveness of any tracing system for stemming the disease ultimately relies on whether the individuals and communities who are at risk have access to rapid testing results and the resources they need to be able to stay home and get treatment.

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Kristen R. Collins is a senior fellow for the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.


[1] Bruno Maçães, “Only Surveillance Can Save Us from Coronavirus,” Foreign Policy, April 10, 2020,

[2] Milo Hsieh, “Coronavirus: Under Surveillance and Confined at Home in Taiwan,” BBC, March 24, 2020,

[3] Fabiola Cineas, “Senators Are Demanding a Solution to Police Stopping Black Men For Wearing — And Not Wearing — Masks,” Vox, April 22, 2020,

[4] Alice Calder and Stefanie Haeffele, “Reassessing the Notion of Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Vienna Circle, April 30, 2020,

[5] Kevin Quealy, “The Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out Most as Coronavirus Hit New York City,” New York Times, May 15, 2020,

[6] Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, Winnie Hu, and Lindsey Rogers Cook. “‘It’s the Death Towers’: How the Bronx Became New York’s Virus Hot Spot,” New York Times, May 26, 2020,; “New York City Coronavirus Map and Case Count,” New York Times, Updated August 20, 2020,

[7] Vanessa Williams, “Residential Segregation Plays a Role in Coronavirus Disparities, Study Finds,” Washington Post, August 17, 2020,

[8] Kristen Collins, “Observed Without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship,” American Journal of Political Science, 2020,

[9] Elizabeth Anderson, “Adam Smith on Equality,” in Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy, ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2016), 157–172; Samuel Fleischacker, “Adam Smith on Equality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, ed. Christopher J. Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli, and Craig Smith, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2013), 485–500.

[10] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiment, ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982), I.iii.2.1, 50.

[11] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.iii.2.1, 50.

[12] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.iii.2.2, 52.

[13] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.iii.3.1–7, 61–64; Dennis Rasmussen, “Adam Smith on What Is Wrong with Economic Inequality,” American Political Science Review 110, no. 2 (2016): 342–352.

[14] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, V.2.3, 201.

[15] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.2.11–32, 119–131; VII.ii.4.10, 311.

[16] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.2.11, 119.

[17] Sarah K. Bruch, Myra Ferree, and Joe Soss, “From Policy to Polity: Democracy, Paternalism, and the Incorporation of Disadvantaged Citizens,” American Sociological Review 75, no. 2 (2010): 205–226.

[18] Joe Soss, “Lessons of Welfare: Policy Design, Political Learning, and Political Action,” American Political Science Review 93, no. 2 (1999): 363–380; Joe Soss, Unwanted Claims: The Politics of Participation in the US Welfare System (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2002); Khiara M. Bridges, Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011); Khiara M. Bridges, The Poverty of Privacy Rights (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).

[19] Bridges 2017, 111–113; Soss 2002, 33–35, 106–110, 188.

[20] Julia Marcus and Jessica Gold, “Colleges Are Getting Ready to Blame Their Students,” The Atlantic, July 21, 2020,

[21] Rose Saxe, “Contact Tracing and COVID-19: Lessons From HIV,”, May 15, 2020,; Sara L.M. Davis, “Contact Tracing Apps: Extra Risks for Women and Marginalized Groups,” Health and Human Rights Journal, April 29, 2020,

[22] Christie Aschwanden, “Contact Tracing, a Key Way to Slow COVID-19, Is Badly Underused by the U.S.,” Scientific American, July 21, 2020,

[23] Jo Becker, “This Contact Tracer Is Fighting Two Contagions: The Virus and Fear,” New York Times, August 11, 2020,

[24] Jennifer Steinhauer and Abby Goodnough, “Contact Tracing Is Failing in Many States. Here’s Why,” New York Times, July 31, 2020,

[25] Martha Bebinger, “Why COVID-19 Contact Tracers In Mass. Will Send You Milk,”, July 2, 2020,

[26] Alyssa Fowers and Shelly Tan, “The New Sick Leave Law Doesn’t Help The Workers That Need It Most,” Washington Post, March 19, 2020,

[27] Peter C. Earle, “South Korea Preserved the Open Society and Now Infection Rates are Falling,” AIER, March 12, 2020,

[28] Brian Kim, “Lessons for America: How South Korean Authorities Used Law to Fight the Coronavirus,” Lawfare, March 16, 2020,

[29] Derek Thompson, “The Technology that Could Free America from Quarantine,” The Atlantic, April 7, 2020,

[30] Hyung Eun Kim, “Coronavirus Privacy: Are South Korea’s Alerts Too Revealing?,” BBC, March 5, 2020,

[31] Jihye Lee and Saritha Rai, “ ‘No one Wants to be Tested: How Social Stigma Hurts Containment,” Bloomberg, May 12, 2020,

[32] Jason Gale, “Anonymity May Be Key to Help Virus Contact Tracing,” Bloomberg, July 12, 2020,

[33] Nicole Wetsman, “Apple and Google’s COVID-19 Tracking System Will Make Its Full US Debut in New Virginia App,” The Verge, August 5, 2020,

[34] Natasha Singer, “Virus-Tracing Apps are Rife with Problems. Governments are Rushing to Fix Them,” New York Times, July 8, 2020,; Choe Sang-Hun, Aaron Krolik, Raymond Zhong, and Natasha Singer, “Major Security Flaws Found in South Korea Quarantine App,” New York Times, July 21, 2020,

[35] Craig Timberg, Steve Hendrix, Min Joo Kim, and Fiona Weber-Steinhaus, “Cellphone Apps Designed to Track COVID-19 Spread Struggle Worldwide Amid Privacy Concerns,” Washington Post, August 18, 2020,

[36] Christopher J. Coyne, “Doing Bad by Doing Good during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Vienna Circle, May 21, 2020,

[37] Monica Anderson and Madhumitha Kumar, “Digital Divide Persists Even As Lower-income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption,” Pew Research Center, May 7, 2019,



F. A. Hayek Program
The Vienna Circle

The F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in PPE at @mercatus encourages research on the institutional arrangements that support free & prosperous societies.