NO doubt many people reading this will have already made up their minds. Halt the spread of the disease at any cost some will say, who cares if civil liberties are temporarily sidelined to protect the larger community.

Others perhaps might be more circumspect, agreeing wholeheartedly that emergency measures need to be taken in these emergency times, but that they must be fair and proportionate. Across the world right now this is the dilemma faced by governments of every stripe.

Just how does the state go about juggling this clash of imperatives, using on the one hand almost every tool at its disposal to control the pandemic, while respecting the rights of individuals?

In finding a solution to this question much of course depends on which part of the world you live in. Ask a Chinese person, Iranian, Italian, Israeli or indeed UK citizen and the answers and responses while having some commonality, will also reveal stark differences given the way government works in their respective countries.

Whatever the differences, though, in each and every case these reflect the powers at be taking measures they think necessary to face a rapidly moving emergency.

But while the focus rightly remains firmly on combating the disease, concern is undeniably growing over the way some global governments and other authorities might be or are already intruding on individual freedoms. That these intrusions and infringements could last long after the coronavirus pandemic has been overcome only adds to the unease.

Last week, for example, in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, a lead editorial outlined concerns there of the actions taken by the head of the transitional government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently lost to political rival Benny Gantz the mandate to try to form the next government.

Only a week ago Netanyahu openly declared in a live television address that he planned to use “digital measures for the war on terror, that until today I’ve refrained from using among the civilian population.”

Netanyahu went on to say that, “They aren’t simple; they involve a degree of violating the privacy of those people, so we can examine with whom they came into contact when they were sick, what came before and what came after.”

As Haaretz went on to point out, what the prime minister was referring to were special surveillance measures such as mobile phone geolocation and the monitoring of credit card data. All this was aimed at tracking the movements of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus as well as people who may have been near them when they were contagious, in order to follow the path of infection.

What this meant in practice was that Israel’s Health Ministry sent tailored text messages telling citizens that a digital review of their movements showed they had been in proximity to a person known to have tested positive for the virus.

Worryingly for many Israelis who already felt the state was intruding too far into their privacy, the text also delivered an instant quarantine order, in keeping with ever-tightening restrictions dictated by the Israeli government.

“You must immediately go into isolation (for 14 days) to protect your relatives and the public,” the notice said.

What especially concerned some human rights groups and ordinary Israelis though, was that the agency tasked with implementing these controversial measures is the country’s internal security service known as the Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s MI5.

For his part Netanyahu has portrayed such actions, including his decision to shut down most courts as vital to contain the virus, the latter move only garnering further ire in some quarters given that the PM himself was supposed to face trial last week on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.

Realising the severity of the pandemic, many Israelis are supportive of their country’s robust measures. Defenders of the tracking programme say the coronavirus epidemic is limiting traditional privacy rights for everyone.

But perhaps what worries Israelis most is that the decision to implement the programme came in middle-of-the-night decrees without legislative consultation or oversight.

Late Thursday, in the wake of harsh public criticism, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction, allowing only those who test positive to be tracked, and ruled that a parliamentary committee would have to endorse the initiative by Tuesday or it must be shut down.

Unlike in other nations currently facing the coronavirus, Netanyahu’s measures have landed slap-bang in the aftermath of the third general election in Israel in 12 months. Among many Israelis there is a growing feeling that the coronavirus crisis and measures taken is pre-empting not resolving the political crisis in their country.

And so it is elsewhere as the pandemic and the measures taken by governments often reflect the prevailing political climate in the country. Russia right now, some analysts insist, is also a point in case.

“There’s nothing more important than the life and health of our citizens,” insisted Russian President Vladimir Putin as last week he signed a decree setting April 22 as the date of a national vote on constitutional changes that would enable him to continue ruling until 2036.

Critics of the Russian leader however say that nothing is more important to Putin than staying in power and that the threat from the pandemic is helping him do just that.

The New York Times Moscow correspondent Anton Troianovski even went as far as to suggest that for “Putin’s budding police state, the coronavirus is an unexpected dress rehearsal.”

Troianovski points to how as Putin has consolidated power, he spent years upgrading the capabilities of the police and security services.

“A state of emergency is a happy time for any law enforcement authorities,” was how Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and former member of Putin’s human rights council, summed up the current situation to the New York Times.

Up until now Russia’s measures in response to the pandemic have fallen largely in line with those taken in Western democracies. Visitors from abroad face quarantine; schools, museums and other public institutions have been closed down; and there has also been a ban on public gatherings.

Critics of Putin point to the suspicious timing of how just hours after opposition groups announced a protest for today – March 22 – in response to the constitutional amendments passed last week in parliament, the Kremlin banned all public events of over 5,000 people as a precaution against the coronavirus.

Up until that moment Russia had been notably restrained in ringing the alarm bell or taking wide-reaching measures to restrict movement and travel over the disease.

“For now it seems this terrible epidemic’s arrival in Russia couldn’t have come at a better time for the ruling regime,” observed opposition journalist and activist Alexander Ryklin.

“Now they’ll blame it for the slump in the domestic market and the collapse of the ruble exchange rate, and the fall in oil prices and all related economic problems that are coming,” Ryklin was quoted in Politico magazine as warning.

ALREADY, say observers, the steps taken by the Kremlin are significant because not only do they provide Putin with an opportunity to show a wary Russian public the effectiveness of tough top-down state governance, but help clear a path to return him to the presidency in 2024 and 2030 with little dissent from opponents.

Across the world as countries wrestle with the pandemic, governments in some places undoubtedly see political opportunity in the crisis. Some too seem as worried about controlling information as they are about controlling the virus itself.

Much of this is understandable and only right as states try to ensure that rumour and deliberate disinformation in our Internet age do not cause panic or make the situation worse.

But this has not always been the case, with the motives of some governments appearing almost as much to do with their own survival as that of their citizens.

The epidemic in Iran, for example, is a lesson in what happens when a secretive state with limited resources tries to play down a pubic health emergency, and then finds it very difficult to contain.

Iranian health officials initially boasted of their public health prowess and ridiculed quarantines as “archaic”. But as the virus has gripped the country so too has secrecy and paranoia with security agents stationed in hospitals and medical staff at threat of severe punishment, being forbidden from disclosing any information about shortages, patients or fatalities related to the coronavirus.

China, where the outbreak began, while very different from Iran was also the early focus of some concern over the communist government’s lack of transparency. Even now questions remain as to the level to which information was manipulated and some answers might never be forthcoming. Then there are the measures that the Chinese authorities themselves put in place.

Experts agree that China has been willing to go to pretty extraordinary lengths. The deployment of the army, using the police, locking people in their homes, using drone technology to monitor behaviour and setting up roadblocks, have all been utilised.

But so what, some argue? Perhaps the coercive power of an authoritarian government is precisely the kind of lesson the rest of the world can learn from. This kind of thinking is dangerous, say human rights watchers, and while speed and aggression has proved effective in fighting the pandemic it need not, as South Korea has shown, necessitate serious infringements to individual freedoms.

“China may have acted late. I have reservations about some measures they implemented, but they controlled the epidemic,” Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist at University College London, wrote on Twitter last Thursday. “Doing so, they gave the world a window of opportunity to prepare, which was squandered.”

That question of Europe’s apparent lethargy and squandering of that window in which to respond is to some extent the price its citizens are paying for living in open, affluent democracies observed one New York Times correspondent.

It’s a place, he said, “where people are used to free movement, easy travel and independent decision-making, and where governments worry about public opinion.”

In such societies, governments aren’t used to giving harsh orders, noted the correspondent, and citizens aren’t used to following them. Which brings us back here to our own doorstep in the UK.

Civil liberties will have to be “infringed” to save lives, Sadiq Khan warned last week, with the London mayor stressing that “our liberties and human rights need to be changed, curtailed, infringed – use whatever word you want” to stop people dying from the virus.

Khan’s remarks came almost at the same time as the British government’s principal emergency measure, the Coronavirus Bill, was published on Thursday.

At 328 pages long it confers powers on the state to reorganise and control people’s lives, and to set traditional freedom aside, in ways that are unprecedented since the wartime emergency powers of 1939-45.

No one doubts for a moment that emergency legislation to combat Covid-19 is necessary, but so too is proper scrutiny of the vast powers it enables. This legislation among many other things gives police the power to detain suspected carriers of the virus for a month, while also relaxing care standards so local authorities can prioritise resources.

Immigration officers and public health officers will also be given expanded powers while there would be a relaxation on mass state surveillance. Perhaps of most concern is that under the Government’s plans, the new law would also be on the statute book for two years.

Some civil liberties and human rights activists, while recognising that exceptional measures are needed, are equally leery. In the current climate, though, it’s unlikely there will be much tolerance around for those who assert such freedoms in the midst of a fear-inducing pandemic. Some citizens will simply not want issues like civil liberties to be brought into the equation right now.

Just as during a terror attack, they will want firm responses and might well be irritated with those who ask questions over state powers and accountability for them.

But as activists say, caution over our rights even in the teeth of this pandemic is important.

As some see it, given the Tory government’s eagerness to withdraw the UK from EU human rights legislation, who knows what lies further down the line after the pandemic threat has passed.

As elsewhere in the world, the UK government is walking a tight rope in this clash of imperatives between freedoms and our wellbeing.

In such a crisis it’s all too easy for government on the one hand to adopt a protector and a saviour role one minute and become public enemy the next.

Vigilance, as the old saying goes, is always a good idea when it comes to liberty, especially in extraordinary times.