“We wouldn’t be in this mess if we had a government like China’s,” a friend of mine told me last week. I wasn’t sure I heard her right. She was talking about our troubled response to COVID-19 over the last year. She suggested that had the government been able to order an immediate lock-down of every large city, and maybe everywhere else, last February, the pandemic would be largely history. “Our freedom,” she continued, “isn’t always in our best interests.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to my friend. While she is right that a more forceful lock down, perhaps achievable only through some sort of enforcement, would have slowed down and possibly stopped the pandemic (as claimed by China), I wasn’t quite ready to accept de facto martial law as a solution. I told her as much, to which she replied, “I guess you’d rather live in misery.” After hesitating, I mumbled, “I guess so.”
I am utterly tired of the pandemic, and I understand the sense of urgency many of us feel about getting things back to normal. We see important community institutions, like restaurants, annual festivals like the Waterfowl Festival, and churches jeopardized. Education, at all levels, has suffered a setback that is only now being understood. Alcoholism and suicide are up. Haven’t we suffered enough?
But is a return to normalcy worth the loss of our everyday freedom? The answer is that there is a happy medium between the two. I would not want “public health czars” in Washington deciding what states and local governments can or cannot permit, but I would, and have, welcomed limited Federal mandates. A very recent example is the Biden administration’s mandate that masks be worn by passengers in all forms of public transportation.
I also think it’s appropriate for the Federal government to issue guidelines for the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine to ensure fairness. Although I might not agree with all details, I don’t think that individual cities or hospitals should be able to sell preferred access to the vaccine by rewarding donors. Nor should “family and friends” policies be tolerated.
Among actions that the Federal government should not take are decisions on whether individual schools or school districts should open elementary and secondary schools. While Federal guidelines are welcome, the local states and school boards are in better positions to do what’s best for students. Similarly, individual colleges should maintain their authority to decide when to reopen and how to meet their educational responsibilities to students.
Then let’s turn to the issue of Federal assistance to those adversely impacted by the pandemic. This, of course, is the issue of the day. Democrats support large, widely distributed assistance in the $1.9 trillion Biden proposal. Many Republicans are pushing back, suggesting that the grants will be made to many families that don’t need them and citing the long-term impact on the Federal government. Some also question whether it is the Federal government’s responsibility to attempt to minimize disruptions to individual citizens caused by the pandemic.
These are tough issues. Many economists worry about the consequences of Congress passing a string of trillion-dollar coronavirus relief bills. This worry is contrasted with the reality that the current economy, plagued by continuing high unemployment and uncertainty, may collapse more if additional assistance is not enacted.
So, what to do. Basic human decency suggests that the Biden proposal should be enacted. The concept of freedom doesn’t mean much to a mother who is unable to feed her children. The concept of returning to normalcy as fast as possible also suggests enactment of a large relief package. In the long run, money spent now may save more later. And, if freedom is a cherished priority, as it should be, it is enjoyed more when the country is not in the middle of a depression.
Thus, the answer to whether we need to rethink freedom considering the pandemic is no. But that is not an absolute “no.” We need to surrender some of our freedom temporarily to progress on the war against the pandemic. If we don’t do this, it puts freedom—and democracy—even more in jeopardy.
In coming weeks, the Biden administration is likely to propose several additional responses to the pandemic that will rub many of us the wrong way. This is particularly the case if the dreaded “new-strains” prove to be more dangerous than currently believed. Science suggests the pandemic won’t be ended without strong measures. Now that we have a leader in the White House, we need to consider following him.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.