Individual rights in the time of COVID-19

Illustration of a person getting their hair cut in a salon, surrounded by COVID-19 virus particles
Margueritte Ross/Staff

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Americans appear to be prepared to die at the altar of individual rights.

Across the United States, from Michigan to North Carolina to Wisconsin, citizens are protesting stay-at-home orders from their governors. Some outlets have chosen to spotlight the few Confederate flags and assault rifles (which even some of the conservative event organizers frown upon) present at these protests. The most remarkable images from the protests, however, are those of the hundreds, even thousands, of people marching together without masks on, standing on lawns and capitol building steps as if they haven’t heard the orders to remain 6 feet apart in public. People of all ages. Militants, supporters of President Donald Trump, children. They are turning state capitals into playgrounds for a viral disease. 

The numbers of those affected by COVID-19 increase every day, with infections in this country reaching the milestone of 1 million, while deaths are rearing to surpass those of even a severe influenza season. Even if you haven’t been actively following the news, you may very well know all of this. Just about all cable news is talking about is the pandemic and its depressing statistics. News outlets will most likely continue inundating viewers with rising infection and death rates until those evolving figures slowly stabilize, and one day, become unwavering facts of the past.

Mayors and governors are preparing to reopen the country: county by county, state by state. The president has been anxious to do so for what seems to be about the entirety of the pandemic, arguing that the country “wasn’t built to be shut down.”

But the most anxious to reopen the country, to resume operations, are most likely the American people. It’s not just the protestors, but the gig workers and waiters and hair stylists. If stimulus checks are a life-sustaining bottle of water, then the looming recession is the seemingly never-ending desert we’re trying to escape. Naturally, finance is a top-tier anxiety-inducing subject during these times.

Which makes certain minorities in this country — those ignoring the social distancing orders to protest, hang out, smoke weed, throw dinner parties, etc. — seem anything from reckless to selfish to counterproductive.

Many Americans have been nurtured in and have nurtured a culture that often prioritizes individual rights over the human compassion and selflessness necessary to prosper as a nation, especially during a pandemic.

The problem is both action and attitude. Many Americans have been nurtured in and have nurtured a culture that often prioritizes individual rights over the human compassion and selflessness necessary to prosper as a nation, especially during a pandemic. Certain citizens herald their freedoms, and politicians push for the economy to reopen even without adequate testing in place or a vaccine developed. Those who push for the rapid reopening of the country don’t seem to think about, or at least don’t seem to care as much about, those with respiratory illnesses or autoimmune disorders, older adults and hospital workers. 

But this shouldn’t be surprising.

From its adolescence, the United States, despite the aristocratic and elitist views of some of its Founding Fathers, placed a high political and cultural value on individual rights — hence, James Madison was forced to amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights. Ours is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Our military has fought to promote our freedoms in conflicts across the globe, from Europe to Vietnam to Iraq. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur became de facto governor of Japan immediately following World War II, he and his staff drafted a new constitution for the nation — one that, in his own words, “provides for and guarantees to the people fundamental human liberties which satisfy the most exacting standards of enlightened thought.” 

Those “fundamental human liberties” are ones we fiercely hold onto today as a society, from the right to due process to the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech. In the United States, politicians and activists defend our rights to possess firearms, to have abortions, to marry someone of the same sex. These may not all be unique to this country, but they are unique to countries that allow contestations and demands for these rights. You won’t find many pro-free speech activists in China who haven’t been harassed by the police. 

A society that champions individual rights to freedom should not expect complete obedience when freedoms of movement and business are restricted for months. Nor should it be surprised when teenagers complain that the beach is closed off without caring that nurses and doctors don’t have enough personal protective equipment.

Do not mistake me — our liberties are invaluable. They are the very best of things protected by this nation’s institutions. But when protecting one’s own liberties means endangering another’s right to life, a line must be drawn. It goes back to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” his sole justification for when liberties should be restricted: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Brushing past the ambiguities of “harm,” my point is this: A disease causes very specific kinds of pain, called symptoms, but also associated kinds of pain, which affect the psyche. The latter kind arises in family members who can’t be with their loved one in their time of dying and lingers as indescribable guilt and shame and ruin. That is harm. 

As Americans, we’ve been taught in school, by the media and by politicians to champion ourselves and the rights endowed upon us by our forefathers.

As Americans, we’ve been taught in school, by the media and by politicians to champion ourselves and the rights endowed upon us by our forefathers. We fend for ourselves and those we love, which is just and noble. But in a pandemic, the cooperation of all of society is necessary. No one likes being forced to stay inside, but most do it because slowing down the rate of infection and shortening the stay-at-home orders requires it. No one likes being stripped of paychecks and being laid off from work, but people don’t demand the economy reopen immediately because they understand the recklessness of doing so. 

This current crisis has been repeatedly referred to as a “war.” With a common enemy and the risks of failure so very clear, a wartime society, like that of the United States during World War II, transforms. There is a common effort to which nearly all must contribute on the path to victory. It becomes about no longer just your own household, but those that belong to people unknown. In such a time, all suffer, but some more than others; today, this has taken the simple mantra of “We’re all in this together.” 

Sacrifice and solipsism are incompatible. The doctors and nurses who put themselves at risk of infection every day for public health know that; their viral posts — pleas — asking people to stay home for them is evident of this. It’s a matter not of loving someone you don’t know, but of having the courage and goodness to care for someone more than yourself. In practice, it’s not asking what you can do for your country, but rather, it is orienting yourself toward committing small, ordinary acts of kindness and having the discipline to suppress or outright conquer desires that are, intrinsically, selfish.

Wearing a mask in public, staying at home, going out only when necessary — these are services to your fellow Americans. In this nation, service to others and reciprocity should be not only philosophical virtues, but also patriotic touchstones, revered as highly as our dear civil liberties.

Contact Alex Dang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexdaaang.