Recent protests regarding shelter-in-place regulations call to mind a public service TV campaign about traffic safety that ran in New York City many decades ago. It’s worth considering.
The concept is critical because most Americans have encountered major disruptions to their lives to slow the spread of COVID-19. Regulations exact a harsh cost but deliver a major benefit, keeping more of us healthy and alive.
Not all Americans believe the pandemic is just that—a widespread disease for which we lack a vaccine to prevent and serum to cure. While coronavirus has killed about 47,000 Americans as of this writing—the actual number may be higher—skeptics believe COVID-19 is just another cold virus.
The president basically took that view before declaring a national emergency on March 13. Medical and public health officials in the United States and worldwide had sounded loud warnings, but the president’s response had less to do with science than politics. Shelter-in-place orders would damage the economy—has it ever!—and thus his chance for reelection.
In tune with that, Trump supporters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas and other states protested what they saw as a loss of First Amendment liberty. In return, the president tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” Yet those states’ governors were following the guidelines put forward by—the president. But to quote the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Reality check: Liberty is not license. No one has the right to drive 85 miles per hour on 25 mph city streets. Then there’s the church thing—assembling to worship. My synagogue, Sherith Israel, does so with Zoom. It’s not the same but disregarding public health guidelines risks not only congregants’ lives but those of everyone with whom they come in contact.
I fear that something more than liberty concerns the far right. Give credence to shelter-in-place, and suddenly science matters. Facts count. Experts receive recognition for their knowledge. This proves unacceptable to a segment of Americans who disdain science, facts and experts while embracing ideology. Belief isn’t everything, to paraphrase Lombardi. It’s the only thing.
A pandemic requires a national response. States play major roles, and many governors from both parties are doing much to keep their populations safe. After all, they’re closer to their varied communities than Washington. But without federal coordination and support, deaths will soar.
Why Washington? As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out—as does my friend and financial planner Ira Fateman—only the federal government can “print money,” borrowing huge sums, now at low rates, and taking on increased debt. States are restricted to their budgets. Hence Congress just approved an additional $484 billion worth of assistance to small businesses and hospitals. The president will sign the bill into law.
The First Amendment argument is a smokescreen. During wartime and in disaster, Americans may yield some of their rights temporarilyto assure the common good. Tough decisions on Washington’s part? Yes. But otherwise, liberty becomes license becomes lunacy.
Back to that old New York media campaign. It urged pedestrians to cross streets only at green lights, look both ways and, if vehicles keep coming, wait. Yes, pedestrians have the right of way. But as the tagline emphasized, “You could be right. Dead right.”
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