Weighing the threat to life posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic against the extraordinary dangers it poses to the edifice, erected over centuries, that we call democracy is a difficult task. The COVID-19 virus appears poised to drive democracy to its knees; the only country in which the outbreak is subsiding at present is China, a ruthless dictatorship.
Many have expressed admiration and even awe regarding China’s ability to combat the outbreak, and indeed it would be useless to deny that the country’s strict quarantine measures—many of which violated its citizens’ human rights, and especially their right to privacy—contributed to its (partial) recovery.
Among the world’s democratic countries, so far only Israel and South Korea have enacted similarly draconian measures to combat the outbreak. Other Western countries, including Italy, Germany, France and Belgium are quickly moving to follow suit, but not without encountering resistance.
In Italy, for instance, Antonello Soro, the official in charge of the Italian Data Protection Authority, recently declared in an interview with the Huffington Post that containment measures must be “compatible with democratic principles” and said that “rights may be subject to limitations,” even incisive ones, “provided, of course” that they are “proportional.”
In Israel, too, there is an aggressive, ongoing debate on this issue—compounded by jealousy among his enemies and rivals at the evident ability, skill and passion with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been directing the country’s fight against the pandemic. Netanyahu’s political rivals, and in particular Blue and White Party No. 2 Yair Lapid, have gone as far as to accuse Netanyahu of using the health crisis as cover for his true goal: imposing a dictatorship.
It is bizarre that a political party led by three former Israeli Defense Forces chiefs of staff apparently fails to grasp the danger of spreading conspiracy theories of this type during a crisis such as the one Israel currently faces. Of course, Israel’s democracy is under threat—just not from Netanyahu. The coronavirus pandemic threatens to undermine the foundations of democracy the world over. Freedom of travel and freedom of assembly have been suspended, and privacy rights are under threat.
In the context of the current crisis, temporarily sacrificing the right to privacy seems like it should actually be one of the easier decisions to make. While Netanyahu predictably came under fire for authorizing the wide use of surveillance technology ordinarily reserved for counterterrorism operations to track the spread of the outbreak in Israel, it’s self-evident that the measure will save lives. And in any sane system, the right to life must take priority over the right to privacy.
Of course such extreme measures require oversight and must be temporary—but how important is that to a man faced with the imminent prospect of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people dying of a stupid virus?
And that’s the crux of the matter: This isn’t about fending off a would-be dictator, it’s about preventing as many deaths as possible—and also fixing the democratic systems that have failed to protect our lives.
In Judaism, violating the Sabbath is allowed for only one reason: “pikuach nefesh,” saving a life. In Jewish law, saving human life takes precedence over all other considerations. One doesn’t have to be religious to recognize the wisdom of this principle. So amid the current crisis, yes, let’s cut through the baroque complexity of our democratic regulatory systems, violate people’s right to privacy, and save lives.
Indeed, far from injuring or doing away with democracy, by doing so perhaps we can begin to repair it; many democratic states proved unable to deal with the coronavirus pandemic because their systems of government have become useless monuments, having been driven insane by needless complications piled onto existing regulatory structures by the European Union.
As people all over the Western world are confined to their homes with no end to the lockdown yet in sight, it has become painfully clear is that if the Leviathan of the modern democratic nation-state does not understand that the primacy of the right to life, then its ideological underpinnings must be reevaluated and, if need be, rebuilt.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This is an edited version of an article first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.