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Diane Francis: To beat this coronavirus, we must sacrifice our freedoms

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Canada needs a more concerted “COVID crackdown” than the mandatory restrictions announced on Thursday, which require people returning from another country to self-isolate for 14 days, not use public transportation and not co-habit with anyone who’s vulnerable to the disease. Violators will face a six-month prison sentence.

That’s a good start, but this disease is so infectious that governments must unleash the Big Brother bazooka by deploying technology. This is the only way to fully halt the contagion, and the good news is that South Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan have demonstrated that draconian methods work.

Testing must also be universal and mandatory. Smartphones and other devices can help authorities monitor peoples’ movements, in order to enforce social distancing and prevent them from gathering. Data on the movements of those who are quarantined or known to be infected can help authorities track down who has been exposed.

Smartphones, as well as other interventionist practices, have turned the tide in South Korea and Taiwan, both of which are free societies. Infected Koreans, for instance, are separated from their family and friends and put into government isolation shelters. Their phone and credit card data is used by health authorities to trace their movements and contacts. Every contact, or person in the vicinity of their journeys, is sent a warning on their phones and told they must quarantine themselves at home, where they are monitored by a GPS app. If they leave home, they face huge fines.

In other countries, asking infected or quarantined people to isolate at home hasn’t worked because the disease races through families. Some governments have repurposed hotels and dormitories to house infected people under supervision until they are disease-free or hospitalized. The Chinese require anyone who has tested positive, is isolated or has been exposed to victims to download software on their smartphones that allows police to access a colour code that defines their health status and whether they should be in quarantine or free to use public spaces.

These measures are not overkill. Canadians are mostly compliant, but many need more discipline. We’ve all seen reckless people on beaches and parks, oblivious to the well-being of others. Many are refusing to stay home, keep their distance from others or are gathering privately. All these people are potentially “spreaders,” or, as one headline labelled them, “covidiots.” Laws, with fines and punishments, already exist but aren’t working, nor is public shaming. Tracking Canadians using technology will keep everyone honest.

This week, two women — one in Quebec with coronavirus and another who was asked to self-isolate in Newfoundland — were arrested and put into jail (or isolation) for violating public health orders. Both were turned in by neighbours or concerned members of the public. Police have received hundreds of such tips, but are unable to follow up on them all.

How many others are ignoring the mandated restraints? Just one reckless individual can contaminate hundreds of people, who will, in turn, contaminate hundreds more. Likewise, just one reckless individual can contaminate hundreds of doorknobs, handles, railings, buses, taxis and subway cars.

Without extreme enforcement, enabled by off-the-shelf technology and government power, the disease won’t be stopped. Universal testing must also be a priority, in order to isolate the “spreaders,” but also to identify healthy people who can return to school and work to help kick start the economy.

Skittishness about privacy or freedom are valid concerns, but the status quo dictates that extraordinary action must be undertaken. This also means truly sealing our borders until the crisis is over.

The fact is that freedom is the right to swing your arm, but not to hit anyone with it, and privacy is a cherished privilege, but only if it causes no harm.

Financial Post

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