The New Equity Principle: Healthy People Must Forfeit Their Dreams and Freedoms for the Sake of the Infirm

You will have to excuse me for making similar points in this entry to points that I have made in past entries and on my podcasts, but I am perturbed by persons taking issue with my opposition to confinement by giving me the first iteration of the debunked narrative they’ve been rehearsing the whole time, as if I have not heard the narrative before—this argument that’s supposed to put me in my place. It presumes I’m ignorant of an argument they haven’t adjusted even once in light of facts and logic. Then I am faced with having to go back through their argument and fill them in on weeks of evidence while teaching them to think like a rational person. Its exhausting.

I am told as if I don’t already know that countries across the planet have experienced thousands of hospitalizations and deaths from the novel coronavirus, burdens that can be reduced if we confine ourselves to our homes, wears mask, and practice social distancing rules. To fail to do the things that will reduce suffering and save lives is immoral, they say, signaling their superlative virtue. But the same thing that’s being said about the SARS-2 virus can be said about influenza and rhinoviruses, even other coronaviruses, all of which cause lethal lower respiratory infections in tens of thousands annually in the US alone. The CDC estimates that, for the flu season 2019-20, there have been half a million hospitalizations and more than 20 thousand deaths from influenza.

Preliminary burden estimates
Preliminary Cumulative Estimates of Hospitalizations in the U.S. 2019-2020 Flu Season

If I advocated for confinement, masks, and social distancing to reduce deaths from influenza and rhinoviruses (or the coronaviruses these people don’t know about), people would think I was neurotic, a germaphobic busybody in need of cognitive behavioral and exposure therapies. And they’d be right. Life is risky. Humans are always engaging in risk-benefit analysis as a matter of survival. (See Life is Risky. Freedom is Precious.) The question is whether this virus—or any other risk we confront in our brief existence—is so lethal that it justifies throwing millions out of work, setting back the education of millions of children and young adults, allowing thousands to die prematurely from cancer and other treatable diseases, and the myriad of other awful man-made tragedies that flow from this fiasco. The virus didn’t do that to us. Our leaders did that to us.

The signs of panic are fight, flight, or freeze. Freeze has marked today’s panic—a mass hysteria unjustified by the facts (see COVID-19 and Chronic Stress Response). It is a kind of catatonia, a constellation of abnormal behaviors arising from a disturbed mental state marked by purposeless and repetitive overactivity (sans negativism in this case—of which the sane are accused). The tunnel vision associated with the phenomenon has moved millions to demand the government sink everything into a pit of despair to save humanity from a virus which, for the vast majority of people, is at worst cold-like. Like a drowning person, the panic-stricken zealot seeks to drag others down with him. How else do we explain the myopia behind moving infected people to nursing homes to free up hospital beds. That’s the actions of crazy people.

Even if we could get past the injustice of confining healthy people to their homes, an outrageous violation of fundamental human rights typical of totalitarian regimes not democracies, the public health case does not justify what authorities have done here. This virus is not what they told us it was. As those who follow my blog know (I started exposing the panic on March 26), it is what I told you.

Why would I know anything about this? I developed a particular interest in epidemics and pandemics after the swine flu hoax back in high school in the 1970s (see Medical-Industrial Propaganda: The Swine Flu Pandemic of 1976). I thought the swine flu epidemic was the craziest thing I had ever seen. But COVID-19 is crazier. By far. The panic is indicative of a profound disturbance in our culture; people don’t normally react like this to viral threats. The response to this virus, which aligns with the response to disagreeable speech utterances, has revealed a deep pathology in Western civilization. 

In 1968-69, when I was only six years, more than 100,000 people died from H3N2 in a population of 201 million. It was dubbed the Hong Kong flu and it killed more than one million people worldwide. Some of you may be old enough to remember. The Hong Kong flu was closely related to a flu strain that killed has many as 116,000 people in 1957-58 in a population of 172 million. This they called the Shanghai or Asian flu (H2N2). These viruses caused a lot of death, but the authorities didn’t shut society down either time. American citizens trudged through these pandemics like human beings have trudged through them since time immemorial. We don’t let these things stop us. Within a few years of each of these crises, we did spectacular things—we sent a man into space and landed men on the moon. That’s the human spirit. That spirit is sorely missing today. We have lost confidence in ourselves. I will be damned if I will let the currents of irrational fear drag me out into deep waters.

Whether your fear is rational or irrational is not a one-size-fits-all judgment. If you are elderly or sick, and may or have come in contact with an infected person, your fear of is probably well-founded. If you are obese and suffer from type II diabetes and hypertension, then you should stay home and be very careful about who you allow to come near you. You should also try to resolve your health problems through medication, diet, and exercise. Many of the comorbidities associated with COVID-19 are lifestyle choices. But if you’re healthy, there is every reason for you to get on with your life. Get our there and breath the air without a mask on. If you are a healthy forty-year-old man and are scared of COVID-19, then you are irrational. The risk of you suffering complications is exceedingly small. Hell, you probably won’t even suffer symptoms. There are much greater dangers facing you that you would never allow to limit your life.

“But not experiencing symptoms is precisely why you have to confine and wears masks,” I can hear somebody saying. “You won’t know that you’re giving the viruses to a vulnerable person.” This thinking, which seems rational, is deeply disturbing and profoundly dangerous. We are encountering a strange equity principle that the old and infirm require the young and the healthy to take protective measures for their sake, that it is selfish for the young and the healthy to want to enjoy their lives to the fullest, to be free from confinement and constraints. But there is no such principle. Quite the contrary: it is unjust to expect the young and the healthy to limit their lives for the old and infirm. That why when a colleague recently dropped the term “confined” to describe quarantined healthy adults, and in a favorable way, it set my head on fire. As if it is a good and moral thing to submit to confinement. We confine the sick and the wrongdoer. We don’t confine people who are healthy and who have done nothing wrong.

In discussing this matter with a friend last night (thanks to our state supreme court we can now party in Wisconsin), I wondered aloud whether, if we had called this things SARS from the beginning, the public would have said to themselves, “Oh, we went through that more than a dozen years ago. That’s no big deal.” SARS, which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is a familiar thing. To be sure, it was scary when it appeared on the scene in 2003, but we got through it okay. We didn’t lock down society. When a much deadlier SARS coronavirus, dubbed MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and spread to several other countries, including the United States, killing a large proportion of the those it infected, we did not shut down society. But in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the authorities elected to call SARS the “novel coronavirus,” and an exotic and unpredictable beast entered our universe. Compounding the problem was that the vast majority of people had never heard of a coronavirus. They did not and still do not know that SARS is a coronavirus, that this viruses is a SARS virus, that moreover coronaviruses are common, that they very likely already have had one or more over the course of their lifetimes (it is, after all, a cold virus), and that they had already confronted SARS viruses that were much deadlier than the one we are all currently facing and laughed in its face. It’s like how we treat influenza and rhinoviruses: we recognize these as potentially dangerous, but they are not alien, and so we go on with our lives.

Making the risks of viruses realistic allows us to think about whether we should expose our parents to their grandchildren when the latter have the sniffles. But to tell our parents that they are never again allowed to see their grandchildren, or that they may only see them and us through plexiglass, so they can know what a prisoner feels like visiting friends and family he hardly ever sees, is cruel.

On April 16, I wrote the following on my blog (Life is Risky. Freedom is Precious): “Many things we do as free people have risks associated with them. The authoritarian approach to risk is to restrict or take away freedom. Authoritarians treat freedom as the problem. If speech motivates actions deemed detrimental to others or to society, then speech needs to be curtailed. People have to be controlled. In contrast, the humanist approach is to make things safer and make people wiser, not shut down the freedoms that make life worth living.” I concluded, “In the end, humans cannot mastermind death, disease, and injury. Nor can the government. Life is risky. And death is inevitable. We can take steps to reduce the risks for most things we face in life. But we mustn’t adopt measures that substantially diminish the freedom of all.”

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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