The COVID culture war: At what point should personal freedom yield to the common good?
In Anaheim, California, Disneyland worker Judy Hart, 62, says she’ll never get the COVID-19 vaccine because it’s “experimental.”
What about masks? Hart wears one while working retail sales at the most magical place on Earth, but nowhere else. “It’s against our freedoms,” she says. “And I’m not some religious weirdo who thinks it’s the mark of the beast.”
After more than 18 months of a pandemic, with 1 of every 545 Americans killed by COVID-19, a substantial chunk of the population continues to assert their own individual liberties over the common good.
This great divide – spilling into workplaces, schools, supermarkets and voting booths – has split the nation at a historic juncture when partisan factionalism and social media already are achieving similar ends.
It is a phenomenon that perplexes sociologists, legal scholars, public health experts and philosophers, causing them to wonder:
At what point should individual rights yield to the public interest? If coronavirus kills 1 in 100, will that be enough to change some minds? Or 1 in 10?
Today, millions of U.S. residents shun vaccines that have proven highly effective, and resist masks that ward off infection, fiercely opposing government restrictions.
Others clamor for regulation, arguing that those who take no precautions are violating their rights – threatening the freedom to live of everyone they expose.
In an online dialogue about the friction between liberty and the greater good, Clare Palmer, a philosophy professor at Texas A&M University, agreed that exercising a freedom to go maskless creates “catastrophic threats to the well-being of others."
“How much should government constrain citizens’ otherwise rightful activities to lower the risk?” she asked. “We may be entering a period… when countries will need to reassess their willingness to use the law to protect the most vulnerable and to advance the common good.”
No matter where one stands, it puts a new spin on the famous line delivered at America's founding by Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death."
‘An act of defiance’
Seldom in the nation’s past has a culture boundary been so clear-cut, or the clash between personal rights and public welfare been so polarized.
COVID-19 is now killing more than 2,000 Americans each week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, with new infections topping 60,000 a day for the first time in more than three months. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s counties are reeling from substantial or high transmission rates as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Against that backdrop, a striking paradox has evolved: About 99% of America’s COVID-19 deaths today are people who did not get shots. Yet, the unvaccinated – who are more susceptible to infection and more likely to spread the disease – also appear to be most resistant to wearing masks.
While the scientific research is evolving and medical messaging has been muddled, the vaccine has worked beyond expectations – “a huge celebration of effectiveness,” as Johns Hopkins notes – with limited side effects recorded so far.
That means getting shots saves lives.
It also means vaccines could prevent the mutation of more virulent coronavirus strains while hastening a return to economic and social normalcy. So, why do so many turn down the shots and shun masks? Is it a social syndrome that puts self-interest above the common good? Is it a stand for principle? Is it something else?
Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of government who teaches a course on “ethics in an age of pandemics,” noted in the university’s gazette that mask wearing has emerged as “a new front in the culture wars.”
While covering one’s face is not difficult, mask opponents are driven by another concern: They don’t want government dictating their behavior. Put simply, Sandel said, the resistance is not about public health: “It’s about politics.”
“Even as the pandemic highlights our mutual dependence, it is striking how little solidarity and shared sacrifice it has called forth,” he noted. “The pandemic caught us unprepared – logistically and medically, but also morally. … (It) arrived at just the wrong moment – amid toxic politics, incompetent leadership and fraying social bonds.”
“It’s an act of defiance,” said Steven Tipton, a professor of sociology and religion at Emory University. “’'You can’t make me.' And I will enact my own freedom even if it kills me and others around me who I love.’”
Tipton co-wrote the book “The Good Society,” describing how America’s institutions have fallen from grace. He is among many who trace this viral distrust a half-century back to President Ronald Reagan’s quote: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
As economic inequities mushroomed and social isolation festered, Tipton said, average Americans came to feel betrayed by government, the marketplace and so-called elites. For them, rejecting science and spurning authorities is a statement of moral outrage rather than an act of selfishness. And that sentiment is encouraged in a social media echo chamber that bonds the disconnected.
In the end, however, COVID-19 has no politics or ethical code. The virus, acting on a principle of proliferation, has killed more than 4.2 million people worldwide – especially now those who didn’t get shots.
The moral, Tipton suggested: “Being a good citizen is being mutually responsible. If you believe in the gospels, wear your mask.”