What are we to think of the current response to the covid-19 coronavirus?
We are told that the disease is so deadly that it could overwhelm the medical communities’ ability to deal with it. Italy’s medical community seems stretched, and the risk is that doctors will not be able to treat sick patients, causing unnecessary death. So in response, governments have shut businesses, mandated that people stay home, and are preventing people from visiting family members in nursing homes. All public gatherings are to stop, including sports games, restaurants, bars, and any place of business that gathers people.
I am bothered by this response, while many of my friends and family are perfectly willing to accept it. Let me take time to explain why the issues are so vital.
My rejection of the current coronavirus response is not due to being isolated in my home. I am basically an introvert, and would rather stay home than to deal with people. I like working from home, for I am more productive there and it costs less money and time than driving to work and back. I’m not a big sports fan and cannot recall that I have ever watched a complete NBA game in my life, so I really don’t care much if they are not playing. So I like staying home away from people. So my disagreements do not originate out of being confined to my home.
However, I cannot think of a more basic human right than to spend time with one’s family. Parents and children meeting together is as fundamental of a human act as can be imagined. Time lost with family can never be made up. My friends tell me that my right to see my family is outweighed by the public’s need to not die from exposure to a virus, and that the government has the right to restrict my rights for the public good.
Our forefathers disagreed. Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, following John Locke’s lead in the 1600’s, held to a view that has been a foundation stone of the western world for centuries: that we have unalienable rights. A free person’s right to be with their family is not granted by the United States, so it cannot be taken away by the United States. A basic human right is freedom of movement and freedom of association. This can be taken away by a just imprisonment due to guilt of fault, but not to the free and innocent.
Across our nation today, we have people being forced to stay in their homes and prevented from caring for their parents in retirement homes. My own parents are paying $4000 per month in an independent living apartment where the company running it, Brookdale, is preventing me from seeing my parents. Based on 29 deaths in 4,000 infections, the governor of New York has mandated “Don’t go to your daughter’s house. That is a mistake.” This is a violation of basic human rights, as significant as that of separating a mother and baby, brother and sister, father and son.
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The next issue is financial. I know from personal experience what it is like to be in financial hardship, so I feel for those who are out of work, in debt, unable to work, and with a baby. It is not merely hard, but so very stressful as to impact health and wellbeing. The physical and emotional stress on a person’s body and marriage are not just an inconvenience, but are very real. Anyone who has not been through such a period simply does not know the sweat and tears it takes on a family. It is painful. Millions of Americans live hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, and have invested years of 70-hour weeks into their small business. Anyone who goes through losing their livelihoods knows the toll it takes on people: stress increases, marriages break up, children suffer, lifelong dreams are lost.
Besides the emotional stress, Jefferson and Locke again define the freedom to pursue one’s livelihood a natural right not granted by governments. What Locke called the pursuit of property, Jefferson called the unalienable right to pursue happiness. Our citizens have all freedoms not specifically restricted by law, and the government only has such rights as granted it by law. The founding fathers specifically framed our laws to restrict a repressive government.
Now, my government, with good intentions wrapped in fear, is intentionally causing people to lose their ability to earn a living and feed their children. In many cases, they’re not just regulating commerce, they are stopping it. At last count, news reports claimed 20% of America is now unemployed due to lockdowns. If this lasts only a couple of weeks, many of them may possibly recover. If it lasts longer, we will be faced with 30% or more unemployed for months or longer, numbers not seen since the Great Depression.
Former Superior Court Judge and law professor Andrew Napolitano claims that, besides the violation of unalienable natural rights, such directives violate multiple areas of the US constitution: the right to due process, the right to associate, the Contracts Clause, and the Takings Clause.
Put bluntly, the fear of dying and the desire to not infect others, although commendable, does not give anyone the right to restrict others from visiting family members or making a living. Even if we conclude it is the best course of action, government simply does not have the right or the authority to remove natural rights. More fearful than mass death due to a virus is that the government has gone beyond its specific restrictions to violate rights, and the people are so willing to not only give up their rights but to actively endorse the taking of them from their fellow citizens.
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Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. It was a devastating blow that killed 2,403 people in a single morning. At the time, the people of the US recognized that they no longer had a viable navy, and the west coast was open to attack by the Japanese. They were afraid, and the fear was not imaginary, it was real and based in fact. In a fear-based response, the US was worried that Japanese spies may have already infiltrated the Japanese American communities on the west coast, were equally afraid that in an invasion they could not tell the enemy from the friendlies, and were worried about the loyalties of Japanese Americans in a time where large numbers of people could be killed and our country destroyed. So innocent Japanese Americans were gathered and forced into camps and held there until after the war. Looking back on the situation, we shake our heads in horror at how callous and insensitive the US government could have been. But the people of 1942 only saw a defenseless coast, thousands of dead people, and a risk of more deaths. They looked at innocent Americans and justified their imprisonment based on the deaths that had already occurred, the possibility of more, and the possible existence of the country itself.
Today, we are also looking at thousands of dead and the threat of more. In response, our governments have not only requested that we stay inside, but have passed laws insisting on it. Several states, adding to tens of millions of people, have legally mandated residents stay home. The government leaders, as they work their jobs where they get paid, are requiring millions of people stop seeing their families, stop their livelihoods, not get paid, and stay home under threat of legal action, and if necessary, force.
I am not suggesting that the current lockdown is equally as bad as the camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned. But the parallels are nevertheless there. Put it this way: if instead of internment camps, the government would have confined Japanese Americans to their homes, restricted their ability to gather, and kept them from working, would it have been acceptable? No, not then and not now.
Similarly, In a state of fear of loss of life, we are today violating basic human rights. While motivated by good intentions, the current actions are morally wrong, historically short sighted, and based on incomplete data.
Let’s continue the current logic that the common good overtakes individual rights. If a cure develops in the near future, will they force us to take it? Will they continue to insist people remain in their homes and prevent them from working if they refuse a vaccine?
I am indeed sensitive to the need to save lives by not spreading the disease. The last thing I want to do is cause the death of anyone or see my loved ones die because others insist on their freedom of movement. But are we willing to be satisfied to live in a society that takes away the basic human right of being able to visit your family? Are we to be satisfied with a government who intentionally causes people to lose the ability to feed and educate their children? Are we willing to throw out the core values that western society is built upon, and change to saying that because a few are irresponsible, we will take away the rights of all?
In a free society, we have long held a philosophy of accepting the risks and consequences of free acts. Many things cause death and agony: besides a host of contagious diseases, there is alcohol, automobiles, boats, airplanes, fire, knives, chainsaws, fatty food . . . the list goes on . . . all these things free people use to cause the deaths of themselves, their loved ones, and others. We regulate these things, but we do not take them away, nor outlaw them, nor cause the entire nation to lock down. Instead we as a society live with the consequences of our freedoms even though people die all around us because of them. We decide that the benefits of free people driving cars outweighs 56,000 people a year who die horrible painful deaths in wrecks.
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As to the coronavirus itself, we have been repeatedly told that if we limit exposure, we will ‘flatten the curve’ of the infection. The popular models we are shown by medical professionals tell us that if we limit exposure of the general population, the medical system will not be overwhelmed and lives will be saved. Of course we can all support this idea in concept and all stand behind the goal of saving lives.
If we assume the models are true, the curve can indeed be flattened, but in doing so lengthened. Basing their decisions on preliminary and incomplete data, our government officials do not truly know how long the curve will last, whether the entire population will eventually be infected, or the number of people eventually needing healthcare. Some estimates project the lockdown will be two weeks, others that the curve may not peak until July, but these are guesses. They really do not know, and they seem to be reacting day by day. If we follow the current curve logic, the population will need to be on lockdown until enough of the population has already had the disease and the curve will not exceed the capacity of the medical system. So our government officials are prepared to keep people from earning a living for an extended period of time.
Will they take into consideration the health and societal problems caused by large percentage of increase in poverty, an inevitable result of a nationwide lockdown? I suspect that they will not. We hope that in a few days or weeks, the fog of panic will burn off with the clarity of the noonday sun and people will be allowed to go about their lives. But if I am wrong, and the lockdown continues, are we to believe that the United States treasury is deep enough to float so many failed industries? All year? They cannot, but even if it were possible temporarily, it is unwise. So far, our government is willing to prevent people from making a living and paying taxes, then paying them money in return. Would it not be wiser to allow them to work? The US debt is not limitless and will eventually have dire consequences to all citizens.
The best case we can hope for is that the trillions added to the debt will simply cause an economic slowdown and a small increase in chronic poverty. That’s the best case. However, it is logically possible for the US to default on its bonds or print money to pay its debts. I will leave it to the economists’ crystal balls to predict the likelihood of this, but history proves to us that economies can collapse and social structures with it. When economies collapse, there are no funds to run the hospitals or other essential functions. Are we expected to believe that severe damage to the economy will not reduce the health of the nation and the ability of the healthcare system? As I said, I have absolutely no idea of the likelihood of this, but if we think we are smarter than all the countries in history that destroyed their economies, we are fools. Are our leaders considering the overall stability of the country when they decree a mass stoppage of paychecks? I doubt it.
I therefore plead with our government officials; go take a nap and come back when you’re rested. We need you making clear decisions.
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What are we to do then with the face of mass death due to the coronavirus? Are we to allow irresponsible people to callously travel about, infecting us, our families, and their own loved ones?
The loss of even a single life is tragic. No one wants death. I honestly feel deeply for the nursing home directors. They are faced with a dilemma of either violating basic human dignity by isolating the elderly from their loved ones in the last days of their lives or risking an infection lethal to everyone in the building.
However, as I have attempted to show, the current response will indeed cause health problems in society as an unintended consequence. Deciding how many deaths to allow for this virus is no different than what we have done daily throughout our history. How slow do we make the speed limits so that we balance the saving of lives with increasing the cost of transportation? Do we raise taxes and hire more police to monitor speeders, or leave taxes lower and allow some to speed and kill others? Do we insist on stronger roll cages in cars and save lives but prevent poor people from affording cars? These types of decisions are made every day in multiple fields of public interest. We balance the deaths of thousands of people with the negative impact on millions of people. What we do not do, at least up to now, is insist that commerce stop and confine the populace to protect all life.
5,000 people a year die of choking in the US. 56,000 die of car crashes. 225,000 people die in the US every month, year in and year out. All are tragic. We do not clear all restaurants to prevent choking deaths. We do not stop transportation to prevent road deaths. And we do not take preliminary data, lock down 327,200,000 people, throwing 500,000 to 2,000,000 into poverty, shutting down 75,000,000 children’s education, and stopping our courts, all to prevent an unknown number of virus deaths.
A free people, to stay free, must live with the fact that some free people are irresponsible and will damage other people. This is tragic, but history has proven the alternative to be worse.