Whose Lives and Freedoms Matter?
Balancing public health with demands to freely harm ourselves and others during a pandemic
Our bodies are not the only thing under assault during this pandemic. While most Americans claim to support freedom, its unequal distribution is a stain on our history. Inequities continue, including within the debate over Coronavirus/COVID-19 precautions. They’re part of a greater failure to strike a balance in meeting as many needs as possible during a particularly challenging time.
Some of us, particularly white, Christian supporters of the 2020 Presidential Election runner-up, view our personal freedom as in opposition to recent pandemic safety precaution recommendations and mandates. Advisor Scott Atlas recently Tweeted for Michiganders to “rise up” in opposition to state restrictions imposed after a spike in COVID hospitalizations And last April the POTUS himself similarly tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” then “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” He also resisted wearing a face mask in public for months and has cited incorrect data about them, both serving to discourage widespread use.
Binary perceptions of expressing freedom versus taking precautions are problematic in at least five ways:
- They ignore increasingly compelling scientific evidence and expert assessments. Safety precautions like face mask mandates and distancing measures are correlated with better pandemic outcomes in countries like South Korea and Japan as well as in different states. Epidemiologists and virologists working independently or with the CDC and WHO have stridently advocated for such measures, including as alternatives to emergency lockdowns.
- They’re based on a narrow definition of “freedom.” A broader one includes remaining alive or avoiding serious illness. For instance bar closures encroach on freedoms, but less than being bedridden or dead. At times freedoms do oppose each other. Balancing them is crucial.
- They ring shallow. This nation is supposedly a beacon of freedom. When one group’s expressions of freedom causes significant public harm (e.g., by curtailing others’ freedoms), that group is standing less for a free and great nation than for ethnic nationalism or sectarianism.
- All-or-nothing framing promotes failure in complex crises like pandemics and climate disruption. This is a fatal flaw and blind spot of Libertarianism in general. By its dogma, any “progressive” government intervention actually represents a socialist take-over of our lives. This hinders harm-reduction approaches to mitigate transmission risk, precaution progressions, and ongoing funding that has reduced spread and kept businesses afloat. It cedes responsibility for promoting public and economic health to private citizens and businesses, which precludes effective coordination across industries, states, or countries. Such coordination is a primary argument for having governments. It also helped minimize the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Libertarianism DOES allow for other types of existing governmental “interventions” (e.g., invading Iraq). And not charging fossil fuel companies for air and water pollution is an acceptable subsidy. Its corporate founders likely applied such rules to preserve the power structures that enabled their profitable ascendance.
- It selectively ignores our recent history of accepting incursions on freedoms, ostensibly to protect national interests. Republicans, Libertarians, and certain “corporate” Democrats have been fine with numerous rights infringements over the last forty years. Ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual identity seem to be key variables. In general for white Christians, the value of everyday rights and threats to them (particularly from non-whites and Muslims) have consistently been elevated. The rights of people of color and Muslims have consistently been devalued.
Below are categorized examples of freedom infringements since 1980. Those demanding the right to be barefaced in public or congregate as if the virus wasn’t killing hundreds of thousands of Americans appear to have actively supported or otherwise accepted them.
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- Torturing prisoners, particularly during the G.W. Bush Administration
- Killing thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan
- Providing weapons for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing genocide in Yemen
Non-citizen residents or visitors:
- Putting immigrants and asylum seekers in detention centers and separating children from their parents
- Migrant workers not having access to PPE during the COVID pandemic while performing essential jobs without adequate safety precautions
- Misconduct by border patrol especially in regards to treatment of people of color (e.g., forced hysterectomies for immigrants)
- Curtailing the rights of people of color to bear arms
- Forcing women with low incomes to complete unwanted pregnancies or seek high-risk procedures by not providing free birth control and restricting access to medical abortions
- Not allowing gay couples to marry throughout the country until 2015
- Surveilling Muslims in New York City after 9/11, despite lack of histories of violence or any known ties to terrorist organizations
- Disproportionate incarceration of people of color, especially Black men
- Workplace discrimination directed toward LGBTQ+ people
- Encroaching on voting rights through suppression efforts (e.g., strict ID laws without support for people with difficulty obtaining them)
- Essential workers (disproportionately people of color) lacking proper PPE or access to safe working conditions during the Coronavirus pandemic
- Quarantining a nurse who treated African Ebola patients upon her return
- TSA pat-downs and related airport security measures
- Taking minimal action to prevent COVID-19 illnesses and deaths, disproportionately impacting people of color or those with pre-existing conditions including advanced age
Functional free societies enact policies that balance costs and benefits, including to different freedoms. Our definitions and calculations indicate work left to do to fulfill the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Those who claim to stand for freedom and rights must do so more broadly or surrender notions of defending the Constitution. Patriotism also requires standing up to different threats, including foreign aggressors and novel viruses. That can involve sacrificing certain immediate needs. This nation is only as free as the degree to which we protect freedom as a whole beyond and within our borders. We cannot do that without treating more people’s freedoms as valuable, including by responding effectively to a pandemic that is stripping them in permanent ways.
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