Jack DeVine / February 17, 2022

Freedom of Choice in the Age of COVID

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” —Invictus, 1888

Freedom of choice — the door that’s always open, the fork in the road, the opportunity to determine the trajectory of our own lives — is a quintessential American principle and privilege.

We all support that precious freedom, but we often find it difficult to agree on when and where to apply it. Today’s raging debate over COVID protective measures is no exception.

The Biden administration and some state authorities — evidently deeming the COVID situation too grave to let individuals choose how best to protect themselves and others — insist on imposing vaccination and masking mandates. But Americans increasingly disagree, both doubtful about the effectiveness of the mandated actions and wholly unwilling to give up their freedom of choice in the matter. That’s precisely what prompted the “Freedom Convoy” truckers’ strike that paralyzed normally tranquil Canada for two weeks.

It turns out that human life is a sea of risk; we humans face it every day and handle it quite well — with government help, but minimal intrusion.

For example, every time you or I get behind the wheel of a car we take our life into our hands. Automobile accidents kill about 35,000 Americans per year. If we take time to think about it, we realize that our choice may affect other lives as well — nearly half of fatal automobile accidents involve two or more cars, so my driving error could threaten your life.

But we also recognize that in this world there are no risk-free options and no perfectly safe cars. And so, consciously or not, we usually conclude that automobile travel is safe enough. And we’re usually right.

Governments get involved, sensibly and effectively, by establishing safety standards and boundaries. They license cars and drivers, post speed limits, require seat belt use, require manufacturers to meet safety standards for car design, etc.

They could go further — enforcing a 25-mph national speed limit could save 20,000 lives per year — but doing so would cripple the economy and make life unlivable for many. Instead, they leave it to us to decide if we should drive and how to do so safely.

But a global pandemic is far scarier and potentially much more harmful than the health and safety threats that we and our government deal with day to day. At what point are the risks so overwhelming that our government has no choice but to step in and take charge of our lives?

I’d suggest they do so when — and only when — three conditions exist: (1) a huge threat to public safety, (2) a proven way to counter that threat, and (3) tolerable downside consequences — i.e., a remedy that’s not worse than the disease.

We’re not even close. Of course, there’s no question about the severity of the COVID threat — there have been more than five million deaths worldwide and counting. But let’s face it: our effectiveness in turning the tide has been sporadic at best.

The vaccines have been broadly effective but with sometimes serious side effects and limitations in dealing with emerging COVID variants. There is little evidence that masks provide any significant COVID protection. And even the age-old big gun, rigid lockdowns, have been a complete bust, yielding few lasting gains while simultaneously wrecking the economy, causing profound societal disruption, and ruining countless lives.

We’ve been down this rocky COVID road for two long years. CDC, please give us solid information, some tools, and guidance on how to use them — then step aside and let us use our own best judgment, in our own circumstance, on how best to employ them. And rather than mandates, we propose:

  • For parents: young children have very low vulnerability to COVID. Masks offer minimal COVID protection and impede learning and social development. You know your children and their school environments. You decide.

  • Adults, wear masks if you wish, but don’t expect them to provide an ironclad shield against COVID. For the vulnerable older or infirm adults, your first priority should be to avoid altogether circumstances in which transmission is likely. You know what they are.

  • For many, the vaccines are a godsend — get vaxxed and boosted. But choosing not to, for your own reasons, is not an assault on others and surely not a reason to lose your job.

I’ve always felt that William Earnest Henley’s famous poem Invictus (required memorization during my plebe year at USNA) perfectly captures the power of choice: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Words to live by in times like these.

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