Criminology as a concept, where crime is treated as something that needs, and indeed is able, to be researched, as well as criminology as a practice, where such beliefs are exercised, have long been the subject of state influence, intervention, and ‘guidance’. It must not be overlooked that criminology has its subject matter selected by state [henceforth used interchangeably with ‘government’] – it is the legislator who decides what constitutes a crime and its control. Thus, criminology as a discipline is predisposed to be a tool used for legitimising state power and monopoly as well as a way of reproducing knowledge of crime set forth by the state. Therefore, it is difficult, but not impossible, to conduct criminological research on wrongdoings committed by the state itself (Michalowski, Chambliss, & Kramer, 2010, p. 1). Paired with criminology’s disregard, actions as a result of state misdeeds have become difficult to distinguish. This short essay presents how states’ response to the pandemic of COVID-19 could be seen as a case of abuse of power. Upon the classification of the novel virus COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 12th 2020, governments of almost every nation state were forced to, sooner or later, take measures, as to limit the spread and lethality of said virus. Debates ensued in every country on how to best tackle the problem with the help of economists, psychologists, and often even sociologists. Such debates led to a plethora of measures being employed. These ranged from face covering mandates, through early bar closures, to curfews, with the most notable example of the latter being enforced in some French cities (Thompson, 2020). The lack of consensus on the measures decided upon by governments led to some questioning the state’s real aims as the measures could be interpreted as excessive quoting one’s various freedoms. The following discussion focuses on ways in which states’ responses to the pandemic could be interpreted as states’ abuse of power. Here, it must be noted that the following points are not necessarily the author’s views, but merely a discussion in the realm of possibilities.

Financial response and its consequences as abuse of power

First, one must consider the financial strains coming as a result of government (in)action in the form of opening hour restrictions, event limitations and prohibitions, and sector closures. Certainly, despite the critical stance of this essay, one must admit that many countries had elaborate – and often effective – plans on how to support workers in such trying times through initiatives such as furlough in the United Kingdom. However, two important factors were – mostly – omitted. First, the possibility of a second wave through which we are going now and not ‘setting money aside’, and second, workers without contracts often not being eligible for government help as in theory they are not working. Social injury analogous to state crime – or abuse of power – as described by Michalowski (2010, pp. 16-17) with its two of three characteristics applies well in this context. First, social injury is intentional. Indeed, the various measures put forth did not appear from a vacuum. Economic ‘shields’ in the form of giving money to struggling sectors, businesses, and workers was carefully planned. However, just as intentional were the aforementioned omissions as economists and ministers responsible alike are certainly aware of the non-contract, ‘cash-in-hand’ workers. Further, a second, harsher wave, was to be expected when measures started to ease earlier in the year. The second characteristic of social injury as per Michalowski’s analysis is the pursuit of political and/or economic goals. Responses to COVID-19 put many, mainly the working class, in financial strain. Limiting the capabilities of people to earn a living and making them rely on the – often insufficient – handouts from a government could again be seen as an abuse of power by the state, for which the reason is simple. Reliance on money from the government is, or in the best case will become, reliance on the government itself. One’s autonomy, freedom, and opportunities to earn money in a way they want to is severely limited through such dependence. Further, the amount given to a worker in the form of, for example, furlough is unlikely to increase over time. This in turn, limits one’s standard of living to something one can afford for that money. Having such an overwhelming influence on someone’s livelihood is bound to be interpreted as a state’s abuse of power. Alas, when a state feeds one, it controls them.

Flight cancelled

In the beginning of his essay on freedom, Schopenhauer (1839/1999, pp. 3-4) identifies three kinds of freedom, the first of which, physical, has the capacity to be used as a basis for criticism of a state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. He comments on the lack materialised barriers to do as one wishes constituting the physicality of freedom. Instances such as border controls in the Schengen area, cancelled flights, and curfews coming as a measure against the virus are examples of the negative freedom of citizens being impeded upon – the barrier to travel or stay out late is there. Moreover, positive freedom – having the opportunity to self-determinate – could also be seen as being in danger through the state using its power and influence to prevent citizens from such self-realisation. Through the prohibition of various cultural and social events or travel limitation, people are no longer free to fulfil their own needs, wants, and interests – a theme central to positive freedom – as a result of governmental response. Due to criminology’s reluctance to label harmful state action as criminal, it is not abundantly clear as to how limiting one’s freedoms is an abuse of power. However, imposing limits on a person’s autonomy – as long as the action sought is legal – possesses the mark of authoritarianism and martial law. Martial law, which in itself is related often to authoritarian regimes, is regularly characterised by the imposition of curfews on the populace, such as was the case in Donbass recently and countless times in the past. Freedom of movement alike, has been severely limited since the outbreak. People being turned away on the borders, including those internal to the European Union, has not been a rare sight. This too, could be interpreted by some circles as an abuse of power on part of the state due to impeding one’s negative freedom.

Concluding remarks and words for the future

Of course, one could raise the point of sacrifice for safety, or the divided self where one’s interests (safety versus freedom) are in a battle over which one will be realised. As true as these criticisms may be, this essay did not attempt to comment on responsibilities toward the other, or the self as a concept. Instead, its aim was to, albeit briefly, present how coronavirus measures possess qualities bound to be interpreted as an abuse of power which it has done. ​The unreadiness of some to see certain actions as abuse of power leads to a conclusion that such a phrase, along with ‘state crime’ is extremely ambiguous. One can only think what causes such ambiguity, whether it is the ontology of the act, or indeed criminology’s reluctance to engage in the topic to the level it is engaged in youth or restorative justice. If it is the latter, then the actions are likely to be accepted without major opposition as it is criminology which is the force for grasping the reality of crime and reactions to it. Therefore, actions of the state should always be questioned and assessed ideally within a harm grading framework, some of which have already been proposed. This is to ensure, first, the proportionality of measures taken to the risk posed by the hazard, and second, accountability and prevention of real potential abuses carried out under the guise of protection from coronavirus.

Bibliography: Michalowski, R. (2010). In search of ‘state and crime’ in state crime studies. In W. J. Chambliss, R. Michalowski, & R. C. Kramer (Eds.), State crime in the global age (pp. 13-31). Cullompton, England: Willan. Michalowski, R., Chambliss, W. J., & Kramer, R. C. (Eds.) (2010). Introduction. In State crime in the global age (pp. 1-13). Cullompton, England: Willan. Schopenhauer, A. (1839/1999). Prize essay on the freedom of the will. (G. Zoller, Ed., & E. F. Payne, Trans.) Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Thompson, H. (2020, October 20). France Covid curfew: More than 3,000 fines issued by police. The Connexion. Retrieved from

Nasz Ekspert:

Mgr. Tomasz Stankowski

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