Whose rights should prevail in the time of Covid-19? 

AS the world struggles with the rapid spread of Covid-19, some choose to be ignorant. We all react differently to stressful situations. How we respond to the Covid-19 outbreak can depend on many reasons, for instance, our backgrounds and the community we live in. 

A YouTube video that a friend shared on Facebook, on a spring breakers party in Miami prompted me to pen my thoughts. A young man in the video is quoted of saying, “If I get corona, I get corona… At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying… We’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while.” The video caused public outrage since it is put online. This shows the struggle that some cities have to face in efforts to get their people to take the pandemic seriously.

For many of us in Malaysia, we have been following news of how the 16,000-strong religious gathering in Sri Petaling mosque complex led our country to impose a restriction movement order for two weeks starting March 18. The struggle to contain infections linked to religion practices underscore the conflict of some who wish to uphold their religious rights in fighting a pandemic. Neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Brunei have reported cases that could be traced to the gathering. Earlier this week on Tuesday, a 34-year-old Malaysian man who attended the event died. His was the first of two deaths to arise so far from the cluster. It has also been also reported that some of the worshippers who attended the event have refused to be tested, preferring to rely on God to protect them. 

The partygoers and the religious followers defend their individual rights to continue to do what they think they should be allowed to do. Around the world, many of us have expressed our anger and frustration at such actions. 

In one of my recent tweets related to the initial decision of the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) not to close the mosques and to allow theiractivities to continue, a decision that has since been retracted, one netizen has responded that I should be more understanding because in times of uncertainty, people lean on their faith and that it is not due to the ignorance that I had called it in my tweet. 
Amid a global pandemic where everyone is calling for social distancing as a key tool in the fight against its spread, some partygoers and religious followers find this an irrational call, as they claim it is a form of “violation” on their freedoms. 

But the issue here is, we are facing a public health crisis, and so, when the rights of individuals and communities clash, whose should prevail?

Around the world, while restrictions have continued to tighten, we continue to see public gatherings being carried out in countries with reported cases. For instance, recently, some 1,500 Catholics attended an ordination mass for a new bishop in Indonesia’s Manggarai regency, despite restrictions on mass gatherings over fear of the outbreak as reported by Jakarta Post. 

In Canada, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement the extraordinary measures against the outbreak, people continue to gather in big numbers at Kitsilano Beach.

Similar ignorance can be found in the United Kingdom, where it has come under fire after several large-scale concerts and sporting events went ahead amidst the pandemic and the country’s escalating cases. Many were shocked to see pictures of concerts of Welsh band Stereophonics last week. Facing worldwide criticism, the band’s spokesman continued to defend their decision. 

As an individual, we all have the freedom of expression and of assembly. But as part of the communities, like individuals, we also have rights. Collectively, we are entitled to protection from threats to our health and safety. This is when these two categories of rights clash, and when we need to find a balance between the question of liberty versus security. 

Is there an inherent conflict between individual and collective rights as frequently debated? I would think it is not an argument that one group or the other has to lose relation to the pandemic. Unfortunately, these debates are too often based on confused notions about the meaning of collective rights. In the midst of the chaos brought on by Covid-19, there needs to be wise accommodation between liberty and security for the common good. 

We see some countries appear to be having more success in controlling it, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. While calls have intensified for social distancing measures, we should always remember that as we do physical distancing, we do not lose the social solidarity. 

A community is a group of people with common interests and values. As time goes by and cases of infection continue to rise around the world, we all need to realise the community responsibilities that we havel that is, our obligations to the community that encompass our cooperation, respect and participation. 

Every right has a corresponding duty, and it is the responsibility of the individual to watch over a community to make sure that standards are objective and beneficial to the human race. 

To the partygoers and religious followers who insist that it is their right to gather in public, my question to you is, what happens when your wishes conflict with your best interests? 

Here, we are facing issues that can arise when the rights of individuals conflict with population benefits in relation to infectious diseases like Covid-19 that has turned the whole world upside down. Within the ideas of rights and fundamental freedoms is also the idea of responsibilities. The world today needs all of us to cultivate the collective responsibility to reduce Covid-19 transmission and to flatten the curve of the outbreak. 

* Khoo Ying Hooi is senior lecturer in the International and Strategic Studies Department of Universiti Malaya.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.


  • " ...... We see some countries appear to be having more success in controlling it, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan........"

    ............... and China ...............

    Why? Because majority of their citizens are atheists, free-thinkers, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, etc, who do NOT believe their Gods (if any) unquestionably will protect them. They had to make the first move .... protect ownselves ..... and they are CORRECT!

    .... but for "religious" countries like Italy, Iran ..... and Malaysia .......??? ..... click URL below


    Posted 6 months ago by Malaysian First · Reply

    • As of now, those that succumbed to Covid-19 in Malaysia are "religious" adherents.

      Divine protection ???

      Posted 6 months ago by Malaysian First · Reply