On COVID-19 and freedom

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put your armour (mask) on when you go into battle (the grocery store) wikimedia commons

in a pandemic, personal freedom means personal responsibility

by hammad ali, contributor

We are nearing a year of the pandemic, and the associated lockdown, in Saskatchewan. After seemingly having the situation under control and avoiding the worst for pretty much all of summer, things have been going progressively downhill since the beginning of winter. We moved from a time of cases in the single-digits to double- and triple-digits, and more recently, there have been single-digit deaths due to COVID-19 nearly every day. A lot of rules and protocols are being put in place in connection to social distancing, masks and other appropriate measures. While the numbers and the trends have not been unequivocally bad, even my unbridled optimism finds it hard to focus on the silver lining.

There is little point in playing a blame game, but there are definitely causes for concern when it comes to the level of compliance with public health orders. Every now and then, while driving past Hill Avenue, I see people protesting the public health order about masks. Many of my friends respond to this sight with anger or frustration. I respond with curiosity. These people drove in a vehicle which is registered with SGI, put on a seatbelt, drove within the speed limit, paid taxes, and will probably get a fishing license next summer. Where and how are they drawing the line of what is meaningful regulation, and what is fascism? A little aside here: having grown up in certain other parts of the world, I know fascism when I see it. It usually does not start with public health directives.

For the first three months after March’s quarantine, I did not step outside at all. Food and groceries can be delivered. Work was being done from home. Social visits would have been nice, but the possibility of getting infected, or worse, infecting a loved one, with a novel virus does take away from the experience. I have to concede that it was mentally stressful, but I have faith in science and the advice of scientists. Furthermore, there is enough evidence available on past pandemics to show that social distancing and lockdown was the way to go. Would this eradicate the virus? Of course not. I guess that point should really have been clarified better. Our goal, from the very beginning, was to merely slow down the rate of spread, so that our healthcare systems are not so overwhelmed that they have to choose which people to try and save. Even in early March, Italy had already reached that point. Even today in Saskatchewan, though, some people seem to be missing this issue. This is an extremely contagious virus that will probably infect everyone in due course. However, all we are hoping to do is to contain the number of people who have this virus simultaneously. Back in my home country, hospitals are having to choose which of two patients should get the last ventilator. We owe it to our healthcare workers to spare them such a decision whenever possible.

I think we as a society have glorified freedom at all costs too much, without thinking of the consequences. Freedom is not doing whatever I want to, freedom is doing what I ought to do. My desire for the freedom to socialize cannot be allowed to infringe on my Uber driver’s freedom to not fall sick. I remember reading something once that has stayed with me for decades: the freedom to play the piano comes only to those who gave up hours of freedom to take piano lessons. We find ourselves in a situation where every argument can be made about how we want to socialize, meet people, and not wear a mask. But it will come with the knowledge that we might be spreading a virus which may well lie undetected in us, but kill a grandparent. If the unwillingness to pay that cost for the sake of absolute freedom makes me a sheep, better a sheep than someone who values their own need to party more than someone else’s right to not die.

In a perfect world, there should have been better information and awareness. We do not live in a perfect world, but the time really has come for authorities to take a stronger stance. We are soon approaching the two week mark since the holidays, and who knows what sort of spike in numbers we might see thanks to all those who disregarded health orders. However, this will not be the last pandemic. We need to do the long term work to make sure people understand the concept of public safety, and the notion that science has evidence-based claims which we only ignore at our own peril. As some experts have started telling us already, we are not past this pandemic. But we have been fortunate in that covid has a low fatality rate. The next one might be more deadly, and we do not want to be caught debating the right to not wear a mask or go see family.

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