As the novel coronavirus spreads around the world, claiming more lives, governments across the globe are taking tougher measures to contain this crisis.
On Monday night, Italy became the first country to enter a nationwide lockdown, placing its 60 million citizens under unprecedented restrictions including travel bans, school closures and the prohibition of public events.
Italy is the most-affected country outside of China so far, with more than 9,000 coronavirus cases and approaching 500 deaths.
There’s little doubt that when done properly, quarantine is an effective way of preventing the spread of a virus.
Experts agree there is also little doubt that despite what might feel like draconian curbs on human rights, putting an entire nation into lockdown is defensible in international law.
The bigger question facing Western democracies right now is one of civil obedience: How long will citizens tolerate being curtailed in the name of public health? And how far will Western governments go to ensure that citizens obey the rules?
“If you enforce a quarantine utterly stringently, you can stop a virus escaping from an area,” says Simon Clarke, associate professor in microbiology at the UK’s University of Reading. “A really good way of slowing down transmission is to lock it in an area.”
Which is all well and good, until you consider how difficult it is for governments to restrict people.
“You can’t stop people wanting to travel, and that has been the case for thousands of years,” says Clarke. “In exactly the same way that sailing goods around the world allowed bubonic plague into the UK, allowing people to fly around the world allows them to spread diseases.”