The Transylvania Times -

Balancing Our Freedoms


Last updated 5/20/2020 at 4:25pm

When governors began issuing stay-at-home orders in March, nearly everyone complied with those orders. After a few weeks, however, small groups of people began to protest that these governors were denying them their rights as Americans, even though these governors were adhering to the guidelines established by the Trump administration.

Since that time many of the protesters have become more vociferous and aggressive, falsely accusing governors of being tyrants and chastising people for wearing face masks in public, all the while increasing their chances of catching COVID-19 and transmitting it to others. These protestors who are not wearing masks or are intentionally breaking the rules on social distancing are, unwittingly and unthinkingly, promoting, as author Ibram Kendi wrote, “the freedom to infect.”

It would be different if the consequences of one’s ill-informed or selfish actions, such as walking out on the top of a waterfall, impacted just one person. However, when a person refuses to take any precautions from spreading COVID-19, he also poses a potential danger to anyone with whom he comes in contact and the community at-large. Many cashiers are hesitant to work now because they fear not only that they may become infected from customers who fail to practice any safety standards regarding COVID-19, but they also worry that they could transmit the coronavirus to their children, parents and grandparents.

In regard to individual rights, there are no rights that are absolute, including those mentioned in the First Amendment. In addition to protecting individual rights, the U.S. government is also charged with providing for the “general welfare” of the people. When these ideas have come into conflict, the “general welfare” takes precedence over individual rights. That includes pandemics.

Graham Mooney, a historian of public health at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote in The Atlantic this week that democratic governments have long had the authority to promote “freedom from disease.” As Mooney quoted from an 1883 issue of The Lancet, a medical journal, “A man with smallpox has the natural liberty to travel in a cab or an omnibus; but society has a right that overrides his natural liberty, and says he shall not.”

If government did not have authority to protect people from diseases, then it would not have authority to regulate the disposal of sewage, or the authority to inspect our food for salmonella, or the authority to close down restaurants infested with rat feces, etc. In fact, the life expectancy of people throughout the world has increased primarily due to the efforts of governments to institute laws, rules and regulations aimed to protect people from disease.

This concept extends to the freedom of assembly. Fire marshals restrict the number of people in buildings for their own safety. In the case of COVID-19, the number and proximity of people has been enforced to accommodate public health and safety.

Mooney also wrote that John Stuart Mill, “a staunch defender of individual liberty” and the author of the seminal “On Liberty,” employed the “harm principle,” which states that “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty and action of any of their number, is self-protection.”

Or as Kendi wrote “No individual should have the freedom to infect a community right now. No one.”

It is for our self-protection that governors mandated stay-at-home orders. It is for our self-protection that many governors, including Gov. Roy Cooper, have followed the federal guidelines as they reopen their states in phases.

As we move to reopen society and are more fully able to exercise our freedoms – which were never totally, and in many cases not even partially, denied – we should focus our efforts on not infecting others, on wearing face masks or coverings, on staying at least 6 feet away from others, and on staying home as much as possible.

Earlier this week it was announced that 90,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. The real patriots are not the ones screaming about their individual rights, including their right to become infected and therefore infect others. The real patriots now are the ones putting community first by following government guidelines and public health protocols to prevent more of their fellow Americans from dying.


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