SINCE THE APPEARANCE of the novel SARS Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) earlier this year our country has become divided rather than united in working to control this infection.
This new infection challenged our understanding as to how best to diagnose, reduce the risk of transmission, and treat the illnesses that develop. Research has provided information and more consistent recommendations relating to prevention and treatment as well as the development of a vaccine that will help control the infection. During the year, new terms such as “mask up”, “social distance,” “hand wash for 20 seconds” and “shelter in place” among others have become part of daily conversations.
The alarming increase in numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the past week show that neither our country nor our state have succeeded in responding to this pandemic threat. Despite having one of the most sophisticated health systems in the world, our country’s ability to minimize, control or reduce the impact of this infection as compared to other countries has not been successful.
Governors of states citing emergency powers during a public health emergency implemented mandatory mask requirements in public, restrictions of public gatherings and the closure of certain businesses, as well as restrictions in religious services in an effort to reduce spread of the disease. In response we have seen the politicization of these actions. Individuals and groups responded by stating that individual rights were being curtailed. State legislatures, private and religious groups have gone to court to overturn these actions. Recently Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito addressing The Federalist Society said “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.”
During the recent presidential election campaign wearing a mask appeared to become an expression of individual freedom or a political statement rather than the public health measure it is meant to be.
How does an individual balance perceived individual rights and their responsibilities to others in their community? It was clear to me as a retired physician, that during this public health emergency I had a responsibility to help my community. Being in a high-risk category it was unclear what my role should be or what risks were appropriate for me to take. What has been clear to me as an individual is that I have a responsibility to family, friends, neighbors, and my community, including people I don’t even know but who I may come in contact with. Does this responsibility override my individual rights and freedoms? I believe each of us needs to answer that question for ourselves, but I feel strongly that any right I may have as an individual living in the United States needs to be balanced by how the expression of that right will impact the community around me.
What should an individual do in this situation? My advice is to try to follow recommendations supported by science and fact. Recently, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations released a study that suggests that if 95% Americans adopted the routine use of face masks in public spaces more than 100,000 fewer people could die from COVID-19 disease compared to if there was no policy encouraging face mask use. Knowing that I will wear a mask.
In New Hampshire we read in newspapers, hear on television or read on social media about people and groups that are helping others in their community. People who are suffering traumatic losses such as destroyed homes, severe illnesses, or other tragedies are helped by their neighbors on a daily basis. The generosity of Americans in general and our fellow New Hampshire citizens is well known and seen in the many volunteers and people who work endlessly giving time and money to help those in need.
Given that, I am puzzled that during this time of an epidemic sweeping our country, killing and sickening so many, that somehow taking relatively easy steps such as wearing a face mask, social distancing or limiting the size of gatherings, which could help our neighbors, friends and family avoid this illness, have become political statements or are seen as giving up freedoms when in fact our whole community is being helped.
I think that somehow too many people think that the ‘ME’ in America is all that is important rather than the ‘US’ in the United States. I hope that everyone in New Hampshire will try to balance their individual rights with their responsibilities. Sometimes we need to think about those around us rather than the me only.