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The COVID-19 Threat To Freedom

May 5, 2020 Frontpage No Comments

By LAWRENCE P. GRAYSON

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of existence as we know it. The virus has led to a total disruption of our social, economic, and familial lives. Within a few weeks beginning in mid-February, shortly after the country’s first coronavirus cases were recorded, the U.S. economic boom that developed over the past three years was decimated. Millions of people lost their jobs, all nonessential businesses were shuttered, the stock market lost one-third of its value, and some 45,000 Americans had contracted the disease.
A month later, the number of cases rose to over 600,000, taxing the health-care facilities of the nation, particularly in densely populated urban areas. This highly contagious disease has been indiscriminate — felling rich and poor, young and old, celebrities and the unpublicized, elected officials and day workers, athletes and the sedentary.
Government entities at all levels responded with mitigation strategies of various severity — from social distancing to closing schools, from forbidding gatherings of a given size to staying at home, from wearing masks in public to prohibiting adults from visiting their parents in nursing homes, from closing most businesses to banning church services.
The social-distancing dictates were soon enforced with policing powers. Cities have employed drones to observe violators. Municipal authorities ticketed cars at a drive-in church service. A few people praying near abortion clinics, while maintaining mandated separation, were threatened by police for not staying at home. People have been fined, arrested, and even jailed for violating restrictions on their every movement and gathering.
The restrictions on individual freedom and the Orwellian methods of enforcement were rapidly accepted out of a combination of caution and fear arising from worst case predictions of death due to the virus. As May begins, the peak of new cases appears to have passed. The number of fatalities nationwide due to COVID-19 is about 59,000, which is above the average of 37,000 flu-related deaths annually over the last decade, but slightly less than the 61,000 that occurred in 2017-18. Whether the extreme mitigation efforts were necessary or there was an overreaction to media-driven anxiety can be debated, but COVID-19, though serious, has not become the apocalyptic event that was initially projected.
Some states are now beginning to lessen the restrictions they imposed and open their economies. More states will soon follow. The question arises: Will the individual freedoms and way of life that existed before the pandemic return or will certain state intrusions on personal liberty remain?
There already are voices calling for more government involvement in national life. Some claim that the effects of the virus would have been far less if there had been greater federal control at the start, and want similar authority now to deal with perceived national or international catastrophes.
Others view the pandemic as an opportunity to have a paternalistic government remove many of the risks and hardships of daily life. But in doing so, they would also diminish the motivation and incentives for individuals and private organizations to confront the challenges and reap the benefits inherent in a free society. Each step toward a more centralized authority would result in a reduction of individual and organizational freedom.
When there is a community emergency, government officials must often take measures that impinge on individual rights to ensure public order, security, or health. In dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, restrictions were placed on the right to assemble (e.g., no gatherings over a given size), freedom of religion (e.g., church services were forbidden), and freedom of speech (e.g., no protests in front of abortion clinics) — all of which are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. While most people have accepted these restrictions, they will continue to do so only if they deem them absolutely necessary.
Actions to limit natural rights and constitutional freedoms should meet several principles. First, there must be a compelling government interest to take action. Merely the fact that government can do so is not satisfactory. The required action must be necessary and beyond the capability of individuals, the private sector, and lower levels of government. Second, the action taken must be the least burdensome on those affected of the various possible ways to proceed. Requiring attendees to wear masks, for example, and maintaining social distancing at a church service would be less burdensome on parishioners than banning church services entirely.
Third, it must be temporary, terminating when the need no longer exists. As part of its action, government should create circumstances and criteria for the community to return to normalcy. Fourth, the action should be taken at the lowest governmental level possible, the one closest to those in need.
The United States is a vast country, with great differences among the regions, states, and communities. New York, for example, has had over 295,000 confirmed cases of the virus, while Wyoming has had only 520 cases. Clearly, the restrictions imposed in Wyoming need not be as severe as those in New York. But even within each state, conditions can vary by locality. In Maryland, Prince Georges County has had 5,700 confirmed cases, while adjoining Calvert County has recorded 142.
There is no one set of actions that suits every community. For entities that are minimally affected, only a slight amount of mitigation may be needed. For cities and states that have a significant need, however, a more drastic and longer-term response may be required. The resources required to deal quickly with the emergency may even be beyond their capability so that a higher-level of government may have to be involved. The general strategy guiding the governmental response to the coronavirus in the United States follows this pattern of subsidiarity — federally provided resources, state management, and local execution.
Freedom cannot be taken for granted. It is hard to win and difficult to retain. It is frequently lost through unanticipated threats and unperceived consequences of well-intentioned actions. Governmental encroachments on liberty must occur only when absolutely necessary, limited to as long as needed, and then rolled back. As John Adams warned, “Liberty once lost is lost forever.”

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(The author is a visiting scholar in the School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America.)

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