COVID-19 brings front and center the tug between individual rights and the public good | Opinion

Getting COVID under control in this country is in all of our best interest — in every aspect of our lives.

Acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam speaks at a press conference. (Capital-Star file)

The Bill of Rights places high priority on individual freedoms — the bedrock of our democracy that we value and guard zealously. Those rights are why we are proud to be Americans. They are why we, and so many before us, are willing to lay down our lives to protect and safeguard our democratic way of life.

The Constitution is also clear about the limitations of our individual rights.

No one has autonomous ownership of individual rights. Each of us shares those rights with every fellow American. Therefore, they are not to be exercised in a vacuum. We simply are not free to do what we want with reckless abandon, not caring about how our actions might impact others.

While the Constitution has many safeguards and protection for individual rights, it also has guardrails to secure and protect the public interest. Every level of government is free to enact laws to do so, and those laws govern our behavior in many aspects of our daily lives.

While you are free to buy and own a car, you are not free to drive it on public roadways without meeting certain requirements: a valid driver’s license, valid car registration and current automobile insurance should you damage someone else’s car, property or person.

Even your personal behavior is governed by laws when operating a car. You must wear your seatbelt, observe speed limits and you can’t drive intoxicated.

If you are found to be in violation of any of these safeguards that protect the public, there are serious consequences.

School districts all across America require proof of children being immunized against the most communicable childhood diseases: diphtheria, tetanus pertussis, polio measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox. Most responsible parents start the immunization process within the first few months of a child’s life.

Children whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them, exercising their individual parental rights, are not and should not be allowed to put other children at risk.

Yes, there has been some controversy over vaccines, but the vaccination requirements of children attending public schools prevail.

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So, here we are facing the greatest and maybe one of the most costly controversies of our time: When should individual rights be more important than the public interest to get COVID-19 under control?

Why should anyone be allowed to spread a health-threatening, life-altering and deadly virus simply because it is their right not to take a vaccine or wear a mask? While each of us has the right to make that decision as we function in our own private space, we do not have the right to practice that behavior in a public place, putting others in harm’s way.

You can run the risk of infecting yourself all day long, and deal with any consequences in your home on your property. But the government has the right to restrict your access to public places when you refuse to adhere to rules, regulations or mandates.

This virus is not only making our fellow Americans critically ill and taking many lives unnecessarily, it is hurting our lives and this country in so many other ways. Our health care system is being pushed to the brink. The economy, while rebounding, is still a long way from where it needs to be. Our public schools are in disarray, putting the education of some of the most vulnerable children at risk.

We are all familiar with the freedom of speech analogy. Yes, we all have the right to speak freely. But we do not have the right to speak lies and untruths that cause harm to the public. The famous example: You can’t cry “fire” in a crowded theater, causing a possible stampede where people could be injured or killed, when there is no fire.

That brings us to the other damning place in which we find ourselves when it comes to effectively getting the coronavirus under control: the false and reckless speech coming out of the mouths of elected officials and other leaders, downplaying the dangers of the virus and the need to take the vaccine or wear a mask.

Many of those same elected officials, leaders and media personalities have quietly taken the vaccines themselves.

Such individual right to speak freely, irrespective of facts and truths, is being done at the expense of the public good. Fear and resistance surrounding the vaccine is causing high infection rates and increasing deaths among the unvaccinated — many of whom have sworn allegiance to elected officials pushing politics in a health care crisis.

As much as we value and want to protect our individual rights, we should be just as concerned about protecting the welfare of the public — doing those things that are, and will be, good for us all.

We have met challenges many time before, choosing to do what was in the best interest of our fellow Americans and this country. We have done it during wars, natural disasters and during other local, regional, and national crises as we faced them. COVID-19 is no different.

Getting COVID under control in this country is in all of our best interest — in every aspect of our lives.

More importantly, how will individual rights play out when we face another public crisis?

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She wrote this piece for The Missouri Independent, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.