Harsha Walia: Our civil liberties matter during crises

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Instead of punitive state enforcement unreasonably curtailing civil liberties, we must prioritize policies that enhance equity and that eliminate structural disparities across race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, disability, class, income, and working and living conditions.

Flattening the COVID-19 curve through social distancing requires flattening the existing curve of social inequality. Pam Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, calls for a specific Indigenous decarceration plan, as part of a federal-provincial-territorial-Indigenous government pandemic measure. An Indigenous decarceration plan is necessary to transform Canada’s colonial incarceration crisis, address the specific vulnerability of Indigenous prisoners, and avoid the wildfire of COVID-19 spreading within prisons and jails. Similarly, people who are homeless or without safe housing, especially women, youth, and LGBTQ people escaping violence, will find it virtually impossible to practise home-bound physical distancing measures. UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha stresses a robust housing policy is one of our best “frontline defences” against COVID-19.

Public health responses that emphasize civic responsibility, communicate clear and accessible information, and ensure everyone can meaningfully access healthcare and practice physical distancing are essential. Over-policing the pandemic, however, simply won’t work. The choices we make, now, will determine what the world will look like when we come out of this crisis.

Harsha Walia is executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

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