Many people today are appalled by the insistence of conservatives that their rights not be infringed upon in any way in order to fight Covid-19. They often use the argument that by simply allowing the government just a little more control, just by giving in a small amount to the whims of the CDC, we could save lives and make the world a better place. On the surface, this appears to be the moral argument. So why are conservatives still so insistent? What is their defense for taking such a seemingly selfish stance on the public health issues at hand?
At one point in time, Americans would shudder at the thought of an authoritarian regime taking control of the United States. The examples of Nazi Germany, the USSR, Cuba, and communist China were fresh in the minds of nearly all people. It is those examples that I intend to bring back to light in this article, particularly those of Nazi Germany and the USSR. Not only were they among the most horrific authoritarian regimes in history, but they both have a very little-known fact about their rise that is important to understand.
Authoritarian regimes in almost every case come to power in times of crisis. When a population is distressed, they tend to give an immense amount of power to the government, if only they would relieve them of the problem at hand.
Adolf Hitler was a man who had an incredible understanding of this concept. While he himself had extremely evil and twisted ideas about the world, he knew that not all Germans shared his views on Aryan supremacy and the extermination of the Jews. After his failed Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler learned that if he was going to gain the popular support of the people, he needed a platform that was not simply, "Jews are evil and we should destroy them". Because of this, his public focus temporarily shifted from the Jews and moved to "disease" in general.
It is easy to forget in a time when disease has more or less been conquered, but in the first half of the twentieth century, while great strides had already been made in medicine, disease was still a prominent killer in everyday life. Dysentery, tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, and a number of other diseases were still taking otherwise healthy people and ending their lives prematurely. This, among all of the other problems Germany was facing at the time, is what Hitler built his platform on.
In so many of his speeches and writings, Hitler is often referring to the problems of German society in terms of disease. Tuberculosis was an illness that needs to be stopped, famine was a plague to the health of the nation, Jews were a disease to the world, and the purification of the population and the rise of the Aryan race was the only cure for society.
When Hitler came to power in 1933 using language similar to that which was stated above, he immediately started consolidating his power and began public health initiatives, many of which had a very positive impact on public health. He began the cleanup of factory workplaces and city streets, ordered that the public begin fighting a number of diseases with an emphasis put on tuberculosis, and he put an overall emphasis on keeping the German people pure, and without disease.
The children pictured above were victims of tuberculosis medical experiments and were killed shortly before they could be liberated by the Allies. Source: Holocaust Encyclopedia
In the fight against disease, schools, entire factories, the army, and even local municipalities and police forces began enforcing a policy of mandatory tuberculosis x-rays. As the populace became more submissive and as pushback lessened, there began to actually be entire military battalions dedicated to the mandatory tuberculosis screenings of the German people.
It was not a difficult leap to go from "we must fight all disease" to "we must fight all genetic disease". After tuberculosis, Hitler moved on to forced sterilization of those he deemed "unfit" to reproduce, and a rather large euthanasia program. Once the population began to numb to the idea of fighting genetic "disease" Hitler took it one step further. That step would go on to haunt the lives of millions, as Hitler began slowly and methodically committing mass genocide.
Hitler used disease to get a foothold on absolute power. The German people could justify sacrificing their basic freedoms if it meant their life might be saved from the potential effects of a dangerous disease. After they had sacrificed their freedoms, they could not get them back, and as Hitler began ramping up his "purification" campaign, the populace was left powerless to stop it.
A similar situation played out in the Soviet Union. When the Bolsheviks toppled the tsarist regime, they promised a great many things. One of which, was to eliminate the bubonic plague. Before the Bolsheviks, the tsars had been attempting to minimize the effects of the plague, however, it was the goal of the Bolsheviks to eliminate it.
Vladimir Lenin addressing his soldiers in 1919. Source: Getty Images
The USSR's "anti-plague system" was a large system of stations, checkpoints, and research facilities spread all across the nation. Passports began listing a person's vaccination status for certain diseases, and citizens that contracted the plague were forcibly quarantined, exiled, killed, or sometimes became the subject of studies and experiments. Many Russians found they were no longer permitted to leave the city in which they resided, or worse, found themselves kicked out of their homes for the great crime of not having the proper medical or legal papers.
The Bolsheviks used a great many excuses when it came to their reasoning for controlling the population. It is important to note, that the extermination of disease was an incredibly major excuse that was used early and often.
Authoritarian regimes almost always rise in times of crisis. Some crises are more serious than others, but the effects are often the same. It is very easy to forfeit your rights to a government, however, it is one hundred times more difficult to take those rights back. Most of the Germans in 1933 had no idea what kind of mass genocide was in store for much of Europe. Those who ushered in the communist revolution in Russia never would have expected that the country would be subjected to a tyranny that lasted for decades, which would result in the death of tens of millions of people.
That is why conservatives are hesitant to give any ground when it comes to forfeiting their rights over Covid-19. In the grand scheme of things, Covid-19 is not a major crisis. Past populaces have forfeited even the slightest amount of freedom over a far more urgent crisis and submitted not only themselves, but their children to a tyranny they could not possibly have imagined. Guard your freedoms diligently, or else you may find yourself without any freedoms to protect.
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Brief summary of Hitler's rise: https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/go-in-depth/germany-1933-democracy-dictatorship/
Tuberculosis x-rays: https://perspectives.ushmm.org/item/police-order-on-tuberculosis-x-rays
Hitler and his fight against disease: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/014107689709000616
Soviet Union anti-plague system: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.204.1029&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Soviet passports and population control: https://journals.openedition.org/monderusse/8464?lang=en