The danger is exacerbated by the right-wing crackpots who are protesting social distancing rules in states such as California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Texas and Michigan. They seek to exploit the American sympathy for freedom fighters dating all the way back to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Trump adviser Stephen Moore even has the gall to call them “modern-day Rosa Parks” — as if the civil rights icon fought for the right to infect other people. Typhoid Mary would be a more apt comparison.
President Trump expressed his support for the demonstrations by tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and other states. Fox News’s Laura Ingraham demanded: “How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?” This is deranged. Trump and Ingraham are misapplying the American impulse to fight for freedom in a situation where it does not belong. Saddam Hussein is not the governor of Michigan — and no Americans need “liberation” from public health guidelines issued by elected leaders.
While the anti-quarantine protesters are a fringe movement so far, our individual-rights ideology has already hindered the battle against the pandemic. One of the most effective responses to the virus in Asian countries such as China, Singapore and South Korea has been to isolate anyone testing positive in makeshift infirmaries to avoid infecting family members. “If I was forced to select only one intervention, it would be the rapid isolation of all cases,” Bruce Aylward, who led a World Health Organization team to China, told the New York Times. But such a measure would be unthinkable to freedom-loving Americans.
The question now is whether we will tolerate the kind of intrusive contact tracing that has become commonplace in countries from South Korea to Israel, which are using cellphones to identify anyone who has been in contact with an infected person. Tracing combined with mass testing offers the safest way to free us from home confinement, but it is sure to be resisted by Americans instinctively (and understandably) suspicious of government monitoring.
Federalism is another cherished American concept whose misapplication now haunts us. Trump has refused to marshal a national response to a national problem. He has left the states to fight over protective equipment and ramp up testing on their own.
We are also now seeing the limitations of the economic system that has made us the wealthiest country in history. We are short of hospital beds because of a wave of hospital mergers and closures. That has made the hospital industry more cost-effective and profitable — but left us unprepared for a pandemic. Our devotion to free markets and hostility to big government also means that the United States stands alone among industrialized democracies in not having universal health coverage or paid family leave. Both shortfalls make it more difficult to convince workers to seek treatment for covid-19 — and now many are losing their health insurance along with their jobs.
Europe has also suffered from the novel coronavirus, but it is not seeing American-style mass unemployment (22 million unemployment claims so far). Most European governments have stepped in to subsidize wages and guarantee jobs. That is a more effective, if costly, approach than the haphazard subsidies approved by Congress — including a small business loan program that has already run out of money — yet it hasn’t gained any traction here.
No one is suggesting that we sacrifice our most cherished liberties. Indeed, our freedom of speech and our political checks and balances are critical advantages that prevent our government from simply covering up coronavirus deaths as Beijing tried to do. But some individual rights need to be scaled back in wartime — and we are now in the fight of our lives against a pandemic that has already killed more Americans in three months than died during the three years of the Korean War. It’s a question of where you draw the line.
I fear that we may already have erred too far on the side of individual freedom by not doing more contact tracing and isolation of patients; too far on the side of federalism by not coordinating a national response; and too far on the side of free markets by not guaranteeing jobs. The stay-at-home orders, draconian as they may seem, are the bare minimum needed to keep a pandemic that has already killed tens of thousands of Americans from killing hundreds of thousands.
The protesters denouncing the lockdowns don’t seem to get that, as the adage has it, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” Or as we might say today: My right to work ends where your infection begins.