Many in our nation see COVID-driven requirements as anathema to their independence, but what if mandates are actually the best way to secure our personal liberties?
In a recent interview, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told anti-maskers “screw your freedoms,” which understandably drew the ire of many mandate skeptics. Personal freedom is the cherished foundation of American democracy.
As doctors in training, one of the first skills we learn is how to frame information to match patient values. I see a missed opportunity by today’s media and politicians to bridge the divide with COVID-mandate skeptics by emphasizing how their own freedoms are at stake.
Freedom in its plainest form means the ability to live without constraints, typically those imposed by the government. But a similarly oppressive shackle can be that of biology. The heart disease and cancer patients I round on in the hospital are enslaved by their illnesses, as are the COVID patients fighting for their lives on ventilators in intensive care units.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again across the United States. Variants like Delta and waning immunity from the vaccine threaten to jeopardize the precarious economic and public health progress we’ve made over the past year.
Every time unvaccinated or maskless individuals frequent crowded locations, they increase the risk of contracting or spreading the virus. In other words, they jeopardize their own freedom from disease, and more unjustly, infringe upon others’ freedom to live disease-free.
Millions of Americans considered immune-compromised, such as the elderly or overweight, face an impossible choice: be a part of society and risk their lives, or wither away at home. Likewise, children under 16, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, lack protection against a virus that can claim their lives or slow their development. The alternatives of virtual schooling and isolation aren’t palatable solutions. Consequently, the freedoms of both young and old are infringed upon by the recklessness of others.
Masks and vaccines clearly aren’t perfect preventative measures, but they are proven to decrease the risk of transmission. Similarly, while you can get lung cancer without smoke exposure, we’ve all accepted that smoking increases the risk for the smoker and those around them. And by that virtue, you don’t hear of that same pushback against widespread indoor smoking bans. How is restricting where people can smoke, for the health of those around them, any different from limiting where people can go maskless?
As much as we may cherish our individualism, our actions sometimes have externalities, i.e. direct consequences on others. The spread of the virus inevitably puts the lives of millions at risk. In the interest of minimizing death, the government is forced to impose restrictions on businesses and shutter the economy. While many on the political right consider this an overreach, it is, in principle, no different from road laws to prevent car accidents or policing to prevent crime.
The spread of the virus, which is proven to be exacerbated by failure to vaccinate and wear masks, costs lives and livelihoods. Local and national governments are left with the impossible choice of balancing freedom and safety.
In circumstances like these, it may actually be the more libertarian option to mandate a harmless vaccine to prevent widespread loss of life and property.
Those who believe in the free-market should agree that private companies have every right to mandate their workers get vaccinated. Those who are anti-vaccine are not a protected group against employer discrimination because choosing not to vaccinate is just that, a choice.
For the majority of Americans who want the freedom to enjoy all public life anew, without the very real risk of jeopardizing their neighbors, children and grandparents, vaccine and mask mandates by the state seem the least unjust option.
While the concept of government influence over one’s body is understandably unsettling, the precedent for such regulations is well established. Public schools in all 50 states require children to get vaccinations against fatal diseases like measles and meningitis. Vaccine passports for participating in public settings, as implemented in New York City, are no different in principle.
We accept that our government’s core mission is to preserve life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In the midst of a pandemic where the injudicious fears of a few threaten the freedoms of all, there can be nothing more liberating than mandating masks and vaccines.