22 August, 2020 — Liberty and COVID-19

COVID-19 has hit the United States hard. One of the reasons may be an ill-conceived notion of liberty.

If you listen to news about the Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, it may have come to your attention that a recurring theme is the belligerent resistance that many Americans are putting up to ordinances requiring the wearing of masks or social distancing. “The government has no business restricting my freedom,” I’ve heard people saying on the radio. “This is a free country. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.”

I don’t like people telling me what to do either. But I inform myself sufficiently about the world I live in to understand the interconnectivities that determine health and wellbeing outcomes for all of us. When people take the time to discern how causes and effects are interlinked on not only a local scale, but a global scale, they tend to make decisions that optimize the wellbeing of not only themselves, but of others. Why? Just like the health of ecosystems in nature relies on the symbiotic interplay between predator and prey, microorganisms and macroorganisms, plants and animals, insects and birds, and thousands of different forms of life, so too does the health of human societies rely on the symbiotic interplay of humans.

What does this mean concretely for the current global coronavirus pandemic? It’s very simple. If you are actively infected with the virus, it can be released into water droplets exhaled from your nose or mouth. If I then walk into the air you exhaled, I can inhale those virus-containing water droplets and become infected myself. This can happen in a park outside or indoors in an office, a shop, a place of worship, an institution of learning, or a friend’s house. The masks available to the general public aren’t capable of filtering out all such virus-carrying water droplets. But they do prevent some fraction of them from entering my nose or mouth if I am wearing a mask. If you too wear a mask, you greatly reduce the spread of your virus-carrying water droplets beyond the confines of your mask, and therefore greatly reduce the chances of me and others becoming infected and potentially dying.

If people took a few minutes to make these factual connections for themselves, it wouldn’t be necessary for anyone, including the government, to tell them to wear masks in public or to socially distance. It’s because some people don’t take the time to discern these links that laws have to be passed to mandate behaviors that optimize the wellbeing of everyone.

What is liberty? One of its most basic definitions is the quality or state of being free. Free to do what? Free to choose to think or act in a way that one pleases. Well, if you are free to do whatever you want. Then so am I. And so are he, she, and they as well. But our wellbeing is interconnected. My choices affect you and your choices affect me. It is because of this interlinked reality that freedom of choice must necessarily be protracted.

Unless you live in a vacuum, not relying on any other life form or resource for your food, water, clothes, shelter, and health, you cannot and do not have absolutely liberty. So why not put on your mask, socially distance, and stop endangering your own life and that of others?

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