Musings, Virus

Freedoms in Crisis

It has become a cliche to say this, but no less true: we live in unprecedented times.

What we currently face as a global population is the stuff of the most frightening films and novels. One of the obvious comparisons is with King’s The Stand. Fortunately, though it may look and feel as if we stand at the precipice of such a bleakness as King depicted, the truth is far different. In the end, King’s novel, with all of its death and betrayal, was still one of hope. We still have hope. But the question becomes the cost of that hope and the price we, as a global society and as individuals, are willing to pay.

In The Stand, Captain Trips, King’s invented contagion spreads across the world, unleashed from a secret military installation by an infected guard who escapes lockdown and flees to protect his family. The virus spreads as viruses are known to do, and it is only a matter of time before more than ninety-nine percent of the world’s population succumbs to infection and dies. 

The soldier flees a lockdown meant to contain the spread of the virus. At that moment, he has already failed at what prompted him to flee in the first place. Had he remained in quarantine, his family may still very well be alive—the rest of the world might very well have lived.

Where we are now is a reality far from King’s fictionalized one. But the virus that currently spreads around the world has its own superpower. It’s selective. It finds a host and it rides. Maybe it will make the host sick, but not so sick the host cannot recover. Maybe it will kill the host. As it rides though, it is doing something else that viruses do very well…it’s replicating itself, it’s multiplying, so that some of it can leave one ride for others. And repeat the cycle. In short, you may carry the virus and have spread it to your entire social circle before you even become symptomatic, if you become symptomatic at all.

During the time of the Black Plague in Europe, villagers abandoned the overcrowded cities to wait out, and hopefully avoid, in secluded cottages in the woods and mountains the spread of the infection. Even without a science of medicine as evolved as the one we have today (and it’s questionable whether whatever treatment protocols practiced in those days could be defined as a science, at all), people still understood innately the cycle of infection and how to break that cycle.

Call it quarantine, isolation, social-distancing, call it whatever you want, it was understood then (at least through happenstance and instinct) as now (a knowledge more fundamentally rooted in science) that to combat infection, you had to remove yourself from potential sources of infection. Viruses enjoy riding the mass transit that is endemic in social animals. They ride with us on buses and trains, and welcome our hugs and handshakes and soar along with the seemingly innocent coughs and sneezes. To viruses, these are their free rides around the world.

Therefore, because science and doctors with fancy degrees understand this, we are asked, no implored, to separate ourselves from others, regardless of signs of infection or not. Because separation means for the virus the rides are closed. And without the ability to spread, they will die in hosts that are not suitable and they will kill the hosts that are. The outcome for humanity is the same. For a time, the virus dead ends and fatalities end.

Yes, this is all very simplistic and reductionist, but so are viruses. They are maddeningly, simultaneously simplistic and complex. But in their own ways, they are also predictable. Stop the spread, stop the infection, stop the virus.

Those of us who can think more than a step ahead recognize and accept that separation from others makes a sad sort of sense. So, we comply. We upend our lives so that we and others may remain untouched or at least indirectly unaffected by this disease. All in the hopes of life returning to some semblance of normalcy.

What will the new normal look like, though? We are giving and have given up so much that informs our freedoms as a society. Can we ever get that back? Or have we lost it forever? Does freedom now have a new benchmark? A new baseline?

I don’t know. But though the specifics of today may be unprecedented, compromises to our freedoms (whether or not one believes them necessary) is not.

The world is always changing and evolving and like one theory of evolution holds, it (and us) experiences instances of extreme change. In evolutionary science, this is known as punctuated equilibrium. This is a great upheaval. Change for the ages before settling back into a new normal and the steady changes we are all used to and hardly notice. These are the moments in history that become etched in geologically permanent stones.

The most recent?

September 11, 2001. The day we finally understood what terrorism was. The day we entered into a new war, a war still ongoing, a war that may never be won.

Wars come with their own sacrifices. We are familiar with many of the ones that accompanied previous wars: rationing, shortages, increased labor demands in some areas and reduced labor demands in others.

Fighting terrorism, though, introduced us to new, potential sacrifices to be made for the safety and well-being of our nation, to be made in an effort to win this new, unfamiliar war.

Many of these sacrifices asked of us were to our freedoms as citizens. And when it comes to personal freedoms, we fight. We fight hard.

The question is not if we have the right to fight but rather it is whether we fight for the right reasons.

Already, with the spread of this new virus ramping up, we as a society have had certain individual freedoms challenged, especially where government leaders have issued mandatory stay at home orders and forced the closing of non-essential businesses.

One might ask, how is this possible in America?

The fundamental truth is that the government’s primary duty to its citizens is to provide protection against enemies foreign or domestic. So, how can the government not enact such measures when the health, safety, and well-being of its citizens are in question? This enemy is both foreign and domestic

The United States has the Constitution for a reason—to limit the powers of government. As a society, it is our duty as citizens to challenge the government when it seeks to overstep those limitations. Sadly, we are one of the only nations that need to provide specific warnings to consumers that the contents of a coffee cup may be hot, that small objects present choking hazards, that the emergency exits on an airline should not be opened while in flight.

Amid the spread of this novel coronavirus, COVID-19, specialists in immunology and epidemiology implore us to safeguard ourselves by creating distance between one another to mitigate the spread of the virus. Early on, we were told the aged, infirm, and immuno-compromised were at the highest risk of infection, while adolescents were seemingly more tolerant to the spread of the virus. However, we are also told, we must all still exercise caution by not congregating in large numbers, thus not providing the virus easy transit to new hosts. But it’s spring break for many college students and that means going to the beach where bodies are squeezed together, flesh on flesh, making anyone not already infected an unknowing carrier if the virus does not infect them directly. We take the virus home to our parents and grandparents, younger siblings. We feel fine. We’re asymptomatic, so it’s all ok.

Until it isn’t.

Ours seems to be a civilization suffering from the waning of common sense (see the need for warnings against obvious dangers) and consideration of others. We have developed an attitude of entitlement that may or may not be justified, but it doesn’t serve the current health crisis.

After the events of 9/11/2001, government leaders were quick to enact the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, which was, rightly, met with considerable dissent. The provisions of the act threatened to compromise personal privacy and civil liberties. Some might maintain the act was passed with the best of intentions and perhaps it did, ultimately, contribute to saving lives. The issue here, though, is that challenging the legality of the act did not threaten directly the lives of fellow citizens.

Today, the state of Colorado, on the heels of actions taken by the mayor and civic leaders of the city and county of Denver, has been placed on a mandatory “stay-at-home” order. This shuts down non-essential businesses and services. But only non-essential ones. A report mentions that one county, ahead of the statewide order, entertained ousting its health department to avoid having to consider its own shut-down/stay-at-home order.

Knee-jerk reactions likened this stay-home order to “Gestapo-like” tactics. Contrary to that comparison, people are not being confined and locked in their homes. We are permitted to conduct necessary business, this includes obtaining necessities from grocery stores, checking on loved ones, and taking walks and lazing outdoors, as long as these are done at a safe, discreet distance from others. And as long as once finished, we return to our homes.

To challenge and disobey these orders is to place others directly in harm’s way. Protesting and ignoring these orders is not an act of civil disobedience or a cry against the loss of personal rights. This is life and death. This virus is a serious health concern, and it is likely already endemic, meaning that it is unlikely to be eradicated. Humans will live with the threat of this virus henceforward. It will surge and recede, hiding in its preferred hosts until it comes in contact with another lifeform that allows it to thrive and replicate. COVID-19 may already be a fact of life as is SARS, which, like COVID-19, probably originated in the wet markets of China. Much has been done since the SARS outbreak to prevent new infections, but the very nature of zoonotic viruses makes it nearly impossible to conquer definitively. Not until all potential reservoir hosts are identified and, sadly, exterminated. Not until every infected individual, symptomatic or not, can purge the virus from their systems, either through vaccines, recovery, or death and disposal.

Moreover, we must recognize that when stay-at-home orders are lifted and the curve flattens and we’re permitted to resume “normal” life, we cannot flood back into the public and harbor beliefs that the old normal still applies. As was said earlier, normal will have a new baseline, one that must be accepted and adopted with rigorous discipline, so that future pandemics can be avoided. Expect recurrences of localized epidemics. Continued vigilance, however, can keep the spread to just that: localized.

For now, hate the stay-at-home orders and social (physical) distancing all you want. But comply. Disobedience and protestation are not exercises of personal liberties in the face of perceived violations of civil rights. They are likely to be equivalent to voluntary manslaughter.
There will always be crises that seem to threaten our freedoms as Americans. It is those very freedoms, and how we choose to exercise (or not exercise) them that set us apart from other free states. We can come together as one people and do the right thing of our own volition. We can be the next Greatest Generation.

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