Monday September 20, 2021


August 18, 2021

Of the many ideas that loom large in the American psyche, the notion of freedom is close to the top. We hear too often utterances such as “we are a free country,” or “we are free to choose”. Not only do Americans believe they are a free country, but the implication is that others are not or at least not as free, liberal democracies of the world included.

It is worth reflecting on whether there can be such a thing as absolute freedom in a modern, civilized society. America itself is full of examples where the government or some administrative body mandates certain behaviors. For example, one cannot drive a car without a valid drivers’ licence, or without car insurance. Wearing seatbelts is also required by law. When driving on a public road, one must drive on the right-hand side. Without some restrictions, motorized travel itself would be impossible.

Similarly, children who are to be admitted into schools must be vaccinated for various childhood diseases such as polio, chickenpox etc. In fact, almost all schools demand documentation of vaccinations before a student is allowed to attend class. Yet, many rightwing Republicans have decided requiring citizens to be vaccinated for Covid-19 or requiring that masks be worn in places where people congregate is somehow a huge violation of freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution. Of course, there is no such constitutional guarantee.

Governors of Florida and Texas, both Republicans, appear to be in a race to outdo each other in pushing back against both vaccinations and mask mandates. In fact, both governors have issued orders that forbid schools from requiring all students to wear masks, as in-person classes begin.

Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida has gone as far as to threaten schools that mandate masks with budget and salary cuts. Any teacher who requires students to wear masks in class risks losing his or her salary. Equally ridiculous, DeSantis has issued an executive order that cruise ships may not ask their passengers about their vaccination status. Not surprisingly the matter is in the courts.

Many school districts in Florida are openly defying the governor's orders regardless of the financial risk. They are choosing to protect the students and staff instead of bowing to the whims of their governor who is clearly trying to bolster his conservative credentials ahead of an expected run for higher office, with little concern for the safety of the citizens. No surprise then that Florida has a disproportionate number of new Covid cases, with its healthcare system pushed to the limit and many cities running out of ICU beds.

Republicans under the leadership of Donald Trump decided to be in denial – of science, and of common sense, and threw caution to the wind right from the early days of the pandemic. Trump first refused to accept that Covid was a serious health risk.

He then made fun of mask wearing, even ridiculing his opponent Biden for doing so. And, when vaccines became available, he refused to encourage his followers to get vaccinated, even while quietly getting vaccinated himself. His posture on the pandemic surely cost him the election. Yet for Trump, defying science became a matter of asserting his manhood. One would think in a mature democracy such as the US there would be agreed limits to what individuals are free to do. Risking the health and safety of others cannot be a protected right of freedom.

As a result, the country is stuck with no more than 70 percent of adults fully or partially vaccinated. The US is now facing the fourth wave of the pandemic, emanating from states with lowest vaccination rates. A public health expert recently said that if Florida was a separate country, we would probably ban travel from Florida into the US. This is the cost of unfettered freedom.

President Biden recently noted, “we now have a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” It is hard to fathom that, well into the 21st century, one of the most developed countries in the world would be dealing with such ignorance and selfishness, in the name of freedom. No civilized society can thrive when such large numbers of its citizens define freedom to mean “whatever I want to do”, and with no norms, no guardrails, no obligations towards the larger good.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.