Guest Columnist

The Price of Safety


I have had a great deal of time to think over the past year. These days, there’s not much to do on a Friday night once the dishes are done and the laundry is folded. So if I’ve got nothing better I’ll make some tea, turn on some relaxing music, and think about death.

It’s an ugly thing, but an inescapable one. News networks keep a running death count like it’s the score of the latest Seahawks game. Casual conversations spin around comorbidities and fatality rates. Every positive test from a friend or family member makes us think: “Will this be the one?” The comfortable distance we place between ourselves and our own mortality has suddenly shrunk.

The weight of death is most clearly shown in the drastic steps we’ve voluntarily taken to ensure our safety. Staying home, separated from loved ones, disconnected from our communities, locked out of hobbies and holidays; these aren’t measures anyone was excited about. But confronted with a new and terrifying disease that can — and does — strike wherever it pleases, we’ve retreated willingly.

Or rather, some of us have. Since day one of the “two weeks to flatten the curve” I’ve had family and friends defying the restrictions. Hosting parties, shaking hands, hugging loved ones. These rebels include seniors, health professionals and the medically high-risk. These are not cruel sociopaths or ignorant hicks; they are kind, compassionate, intelligent people.

When I’ve asked why they choose to act as they do, a common theme emerges. They’re not ignorant of their chances; they move ahead, eyes open, always aware of the casualty figures that hover on every news site and Facebook banner. Like the rest of us, these are people who live with a daily awareness of death. Those who oppose COVID-19 restrictions have decided that the danger — to themselves and to others — is an acceptable price to pay for a human connection, a hug, an unmasked smile.

It’s not up to me to decide whether or not this is right. The boundaries of our personal freedoms have been debated for two and a half centuries, and you won’t find the final answer here.

However, I think it’s important to recognize that any measure of freedom is, by necessity, a risk. Living in a nation of free people means being affected by the choices made with that liberty. We watch people make foolish choices every day, only granting government the authority to step in when their actions directly put someone else at risk.

Driving while impaired is punishable by law, yet we allow people to take actions that lead them to impairment. Why do we allow this? Because we see the level of control necessary to remove these risks as unacceptable. We’ve chosen a point at which we value our ability to act independently, even if the public good could be achieved through its sacrifice.

In my experience, those who oppose restrictions in the time of COVID aren’t composed primarily of science-denying conspiracy theorists or people with reckless disregard for public health. They’re people who see the level of control required to eliminate that risk as crossing a boundary. A leap from the prevention of harm to the prevention of the potential to do harm.

It’s easy to suggest a philosophical difference and much more difficult to apply it to the complexities of the real world. We’ve accepted support for the public good in the form of taxes, speed limits and building codes. We also reject control for the sake of freedom in every right we uphold and every new tax we vote down. My hope is simply that we can assess the pandemic as a question like the rest. If we can manage that, perhaps we can make some progress toward a responsible compromise.

Above all, I don’t want to add to our year-long national shouting match. I’ve seen disturbing thinking on both the pro-restriction and anti-restriction sides of the aisle. I’m not a virologist or a politician, and I’m neither equipped nor entrusted to make any kind of public health decision. This isn’t even about disease — it’s about dialogue. Starting a productive conversation means acknowledging that we have meaningful differences that go deeper than statistics. Compromise may mean we have to live with the consequences of someone else’s convictions, even while upholding our own.

Matthew Dean lives near Vaughn.