In several parts of Canada this year, and in an increasing number of countries and regions around the world, Christmas travel and celebrations are being severely constrained by COVID restrictions. As sad as this is for many, many people, especially as we close out such a disturbing year of isolation, illness, death, and economic distress, it’s all in aid of trying to keep our populations as safe as possible. Yes, vaccines are on the horizon, but in the intervening months before vaccines have reached a critical mass of people, the virus remains firmly in control.
Two extreme reactions to current restrictions – those who rebel against any constraints on their “freedom” and those who haven’t ventured outside for 9+ months regardless of living in places with very low rates of infection – remind us of just how difficult it is to be a decision maker in these fraught times. It’s a continual balancing act between the public’s health (and the health of the healthcare systems) and people’s expectation of leading their lives on their own terms, not to mention balancing the pressures on the economy.
Interestingly, most people accept rules and regulations put in place for public safety, such as buckling up their seatbelts and stopping at traffic lights. They’re used to these particular restrictions on personal freedom. But in the situation we find ourselves in at the moment – unprecedented in our lifetime – a surprising number of people are not convinced it should be their responsibility to mask up, keep a social distance, or just stay home in order to help protect others as well as themselves. In order to protect society at large. In order to help the hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff who have been going the extra mile for us for 9+ months.
A recent post by a fellow blogger from across the pond, entitled Ethics reduced to economics?, included excerpts from Lord Jonathan Sacks’ acceptance address for the 2016 Templeton Prize that were particularly relevant to our current societal struggles. This quote from that speech addresses a key ingredient in conquering COVID: a commitment to shared responsibility.
“We have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in 16/17C and the new birth of freedom that followed. A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.”
This seems to be what’s happening in many parts of the world with respect to public COVID restrictions, where the notion of individual freedom has usurped any sense of responsibility towards others, a responsibility that is meant to help ensure that the society in which you live remains safe for all. The pandemic has exposed a weakness in the respect for the moral underpinnings and self-restraint required for a free society.
A recent opinion piece in our local newspaper by Sue Rickards (Brunswick News columnist and fellow alto) entitled Pandemic shows the dangers of unchecked individualism, discusses what happens when individuals cease to honour their responsibility to the collective good. In it she framed her understanding of the difference between individualism and respect for a common (greater) good. Individualism for many Americans, for example, seems to be defined by an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence as ensuring that the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of (personal) happiness are not to be interrupted by any common good … like wearing a mask indoors in public spaces. Canada’s Constitution Act of 1867 presents quite a contrasting concept of country, promising peace, order, and good government, implying a collective responsibility to others, which occasionally requires some self-sacrifice … like wearing a mask indoors in public spaces. Certainly in both of these countries, plus the many European countries that are seeing protests against mask-wearing and other personal restrictions while COVID infections continue to rise, you can find plenty of people on both sides of the fence, regardless of the underlying national philosophy of their country.
These differences are exactly what Jonathan Sacks was speaking about. Freedom and individualism aren’t the same thing. And when it comes to dealing with an overwhelming public challenge like a global pandemic, individualism is a tough foundation on which to effectively control the virus. When necessary public restrictions aren’t respected, the virus continues to spread, causing grief and hardship to many. Some self-sacrifice is required of us all.
Sue Rickards’ piece includes a wonderful anecdote to illustrate why rules are necessary in society. In her own words:
“Years ago in a Montreal high school, I taught a hybrid course called Humanities, which covered aspects of law, religion and sex education and the values they represented. It was never dull. Since it was alternated with physical education, the classes consisted of one gender. This made for frank and lively discussions. One group of the boys got onto the topic of rules and why we need them. They thought there were far too many limits on their personal freedom and action. I told them to always question the rules, to determine if they were necessary and fair, but that a regulatory structure was needed to keep society standing, as the human skeleton supports the body. Unconvinced, they demanded proof, so we took a soccer ball out to the field and devised a game without rules.
There were two teams. The point was to put the ball through the goal posts. There was total freedom of movement. They lined up at midfield, I threw the ball in, and away they went, pushing, grabbing, tripping and shouting “You can’t do that!” “Yes I can, there are no rules!” The game quickly ground to a halt.
It took thirty 15-year old boys less than half an hour to grasp what happens when rights are unfettered by rules: chaos ensues, nothing constructive is accomplished and people get hurt. Yet entire nations, and some provinces, have not learned this lesson. There is little concern for the ripple effects that occur when people put their own wants ahead of the general good.”
Words of wisdom. Understanding our collective responsibility doesn’t make these unfamiliar sacrifices easier, it’s true. Some people find wearing masks difficult, although most of us have gotten used to it. (You even see some people wearing them alone in their cars; they’ve just forgotten they have still have them on!) And there will be very few people who won’t miss their usual family gatherings over the holidays because of mandated lockdowns, especially at a time when seeing – and hugging – loved ones ranks very high on the list of “What I miss most” this year. It’s hard to say who will find lockdown Christmas more difficult, those whose family members are tantalizingly nearby and still won’t be allowed to share Christmas Day, or those like us who haven’t seen our kids or grandkids since last Christmas because of COVID and likely won’t before the summer. But you know what, in both cases, life will go on. And life will go on – literally – for more people if we just follow the rules. Just for a few more months. Short term pain for long term gain. They’re there for our own good. For the good of our free societies.
Besides, there’s always Zoom!