Covid-19 threat requires a true public health response

“Parallels between the war on drugs and policing under lockdown are striking on a global scale.” Carrie Hamilton, Zoë Garbett and Alex Armitage, Co-authors of Green Party’s Drug Policy, highlight how law and order methods, adopted in the war on drugs, should be avoided in containing the Covid-19 pandemic and call for an effective and egalitarian public health response. 

NHS
NHS
Carrie Hamilton, Zoë Garbett and Alex Armitage (Co-authors)

The Green Party’s new Drug Policy clearly outlines the dangers of law and order approaches to public health- this is a vital lesson in the time of coronavirus. 

The policy recognises that a public health approach to drug regulation is required to safeguard human rights in the UK and internationally, and that such an approach is incompatible with the current war on drugs. 

This “war”, which relies on policing, prisons and strict border controls, bears close resemblance to the security measures adopted in the UK and around the world in attempts to slow the spread of the virus. 

Evidence from the failed war on drugs demonstrates that such measures are not only dangerous to democracy, vulnerable communities and basic freedoms, but actually threaten the promotion of public health in the widest sense. In addition to the physical health of individuals, public health includes wellbeing of communities, access to education, a more egalitarian economic system and a just society.

Although the UK Government recognises the pandemic as a public health crisis, the recent Coronavirus Bill presents public health in narrow terms as something to be protected by the state and its institutions, including the army and police.

Critics of the Bill recognise the need for measures to limit the spread of the virus. However, they argue that the extension of powers to police and other authorities poses an equally serious threat to rights and freedoms. Amnesty International cautions that the use of extraordinary detention by police and immigration officers, as well as the possible deployment of the armed forces in front-line policing, need to be monitored very carefully to ensure they comply with international human rights legislation.

Before the virus outbreak, police stop and search powers in the UK were disproportionately used on ethnic minority communities. There is good reason to believe that these patterns will continue under the current circumstances. Nick Glynn, an expert on stop and search and racial profiling, says that: “Coronavirus adds a new layer of risk and uncertainty to an already complex issue.” 

Gracie Mae Bradley from Liberty worries that under measures allowing police to enforce adherence to social distancing and isolation guidelines: “people of colour who are actually obeying the new rules may nevertheless find themselves targeted by the police for perceived infractions”.

These warnings about the potentially discriminatory impacts of increased policing echo critiques of the racist impact of drug prohibition. Although Black Britons use illicit drugs at a rate lower than whites, they are much more likely to be stopped by police- detained and imprisoned for drug-related offences.

Parallels between the “war on drugs” and policing under lockdown are striking on a global scale. Police and armies in Hungary, Paraguay and India have been filmed patrolling public spaces and attacking poor communities. In the Philippines, the war on drugs has been so brutal that one young witness compared murders committed by security forces to the slaughter of animals. Under coronavirus legislation Philippine police have reportedly locked curfew violators in dog cages.

In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) commissioned a report in response to the avian flu outbreak, entitled ‘Pandemic Preparedness: The Need for a Public Health, Not a Law Enforcement/National Security Approach’. The report warned that in the face of likely future epidemics, the US government’s law and order response to disasters should be replaced by a public health response. 

The ACLU cited historical evidence showing that security responses are felt most severely by the poor and people of colour, and are largely ineffective in slowing the spread of disease and saving lives. In a comparable way, drug reform organisations have argued for decades that the war on drugs has not only proven catastrophic for human rights, local economies and the environment. It has been utterly ineffective in achieving its stated goal of eradicating the production, trade and use of controlled substances.

The coronavirus is not a drug. But similar to illicit drugs, it has been represented by politicians and parts of the media as an enemy to be beaten and destroyed. We have heard much talk of a “war” on the virus. Such language helps to justify repressive legislation and may have the effect of treating people perceived as a threat to public health as the enemy

However, there is parallel language circulating these days, sometimes expressed by the same politicians who advocate a war against the virus. This is the language of care. We hear not only about the need to care for those most at risk from Covid-19, but also about the high value placed on the work done by healthcare professionals and carers. 

In her proposed amendments to the Coronavirus Bill, Green peer Natalie Bennet warned against the draconian measures it contains, stating that: “Democracy is an effective medicine.” This is because “decisions are best made by groups of people from different perspectives, pooling their knowledge, skills and experiences.”

Democracy and cooperation, along with community, care and social justice, are the guiding principles of the Green Party Drug Policy. These are the same principles we need for an effective and egalitarian response – a true public health response – to the very real threats posed by the coronavirus.