There is pervasive narrative about COVID-19 that has taken hold in many parts of the world, especially in the United States. Many have argued that masks and vaccines are assaults on individual freedom, rather than attempts to keep people safe.
First, it’s crucial to note that freedom has never been an absolute, nor has it been entirely individualistic. Every functional society has always balanced liberty with some level of sacrifice or commitment to a collective cause.
This was most clear in the aftermath of September 11. After absorbing a tragedy where over 3,000 people died, we accepted new security protocols to keep us safe from harm. Furthermore, throughout our history, many Americans went to war, or sent their children to war, to protect others. But it’s somehow been too much to ask people to wear a mask to do the same, even when the pandemic was killing over 3,000 Americans every day during one period last winter.
The delta variant of COVID-19 has brought a new phase to the pandemic, one that has completely overwhelmed medical systems around the world. Even in countries and states with high vaccination rates, the virus is capable of spreading rapidly.
Because of this, our individual actions with respect to COVID-19 impact many more people than just ourselves and our immediate families. We cannot morally view these choices with a myopic lens, as a mother in Nevada did when she sent her child to school after both she and the child tested positive for the virus two days prior. That decision impacted 80 other kids and their families, and forced those students to learn remotely.
That’s not a defensible expression of individual freedom; it’s reckless indifference to the welfare of others.
From an impact standpoint, we should view COVID-19 the same way we view drunk driving, as opposed to how we view individually risky activities such as not wearing a seatbelt. When you don’t wear a seatbelt, you are likely only harming yourself. But when you drive drunk, you aren’t just putting yourself at risk; you also put others in danger. This is one of the reasons we find drunk driving so deplorable and don’t see many serious arguments for the right to drive drunk.
Also, crucially, no one who drives drunk expects to cause a fatal accident, even though that is often the outcome.
The same dynamic exists in the debate over vaccines. At this point, the data is pretty clear that between one and two percent of reported COVID-19 cases end in fatalities, and many more lead to hospitalizations. Despite this, many people incorrectly calculate that if they get COVID-19, it will certainly be minor. They certainly don’t expect to spread a potentially fatal case to others.
This is often the calculus used to justify declining to get vaccinated. No one believes they will be among the unlucky one or two percent, even though millions have been worldwide.
No one should be forced to get vaccinated. But anyone who declines the vaccine in the name of their individual freedom should perhaps be willing to accept the corresponding consequences of that choice, with respect to both their own well-being and the potential impact on others.
However, this is not how it has been playing out in the real world. Hospital capacity is being pushed to its limit by COVID-19 patients, 90 percent of whom are unvaccinated, placing a debilitating burden on already exhausted doctors and nurses who have put their own health, families and freedom at risk for 18 months to help others. Understandably, their compassion and willingness to sacrifice even more to help those who consciously chose not to protect themselves from COVID-19 is waning.
If someone exercises the choice not to get vaccinated, should a doctor prioritize their care over other patients, their own physical and mental health or their ability to hug their kids? Similarly, if a person has expressed that COVID-19 is a hoax, and that the medical science surrounding it is fake, should they really go to the ER and rely on that same science to save them when they get sick?
Personal freedom can be a core value. But a value should be uncompromising; therefore, anyone who believes so deeply in personal freedom should stick to their guns irrespective of the outcome. Yet, I have read so many stories of people who decided very intentionally and resolutely not to get vaccinated, then wanted or demanded any possible treatment to save their life once they were sick, including begging for the vaccine right before intubation.
By contrast, I have not read a single story of a person who declined the vaccine and then accepted the outcome when they came down with serious illness. This includes several public figures who previously encouraged their audiences to rebel against the vaccine and government overreach, only to dramatically change their tune after suffering life-threatening COVID-19 complications.
Our rights and lives as individuals are inextricably intertwined with the lives and freedoms of others. Making a choice that puts others in danger, restricts their choices or forces them to bear the consequences of your choices isn’t freedom; it’s hypocrisy.
Personal freedom without responsibility, accountability or consideration of others is not really freedom and it’s certainly not liberty. We need to stop pretending otherwise.
Let’s take care of ourselves and each other so we can all enjoy both freedom and safety.
Quote of The Week
“Responsibility is the price of freedom.”
– Elbert Hubbard