“Somehow, we have to keep convincing people that this is not something being imposed upon them by the government. It’s being imposed on them by the virus. And we don’t want the virus to win.”
These are the words of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. This quote stood out to me when reading this article about the Covid pandemic and the possibility that it might finally be winding down. Collins is claiming that restrictions on individual liberty – such as stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, Covid testing requirements, and vaccine mandates – are not being imposed by the government but by the virus itself.
This sentiment is common. Since the pandemic first began, we have been told that if we just comply with the rules and diligently follow public health advice, then the number of positive cases will go down, allowing restrictions to be lifted. We have been told that vaccination is the way to get life back to normal, and that mask requirements allow schools to remain open for in-person learning. Until recently, signs at my local park implored people to maintain social distancing so that the park would be able to remain open.
But this way of thinking is false. The decision to impose restrictions on individual liberty in an effort to combat the virus is just that – a decision. When restrictions are imposed, they are imposed by governments (or whatever institution is imposing the restrictions, whether that be a university, employer, or other organization), not by the virus.
This might be a revolutionary concept to some people, but not imposing restrictions is always an option. The city government could have left the park open regardless of whether or not people were practicing social distancing. Stay-at-home orders could have been lifted regardless of the number of positive cases or, even better, could have not been imposed to begin with. Many people will say that abstaining from imposing restrictions is a bad option. Most likely this option would result in more people catching the virus, more people getting sick, and more people dying. And many people believe that preventing these outcomes is of paramount importance, no matter how badly people’s rights must be trampled on in order to achieve this.
As anyone who has visited my blog knows, I do not subscribe to this point of view. But regardless of what you believe about the relative importance of safety and liberty, the choice to prioritize one over the other is just that – a choice. When someone says that they have no choice but to impose restrictions because doing so is necessary to combat the virus, that person is unfairly avoiding responsibility for his/her actions. That person is also treating his/her opinion as fact and denying the possibility that alternative opinions might exist. The decision to impose Covid restrictions results from the belief that fighting the virus is more important than respecting individual rights. Even if you agree with this belief, you cannot just presume it as fact and then blame the restrictions on the virus.
When political leaders, and others who hold positions of authority, choose to prioritize safety over liberty, they must acknowledge that this is indeed a choice that they have made. Restrictions are not imposed by a virus. They are imposed by the government, and the government needs to take responsibility for this.