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Safety as Liberty: COVID-19 and the fallout of mask mandates in schools

By Christian Lowry, February 17 2021—

One universally agreeable, albeit incomplete, definition of politics is “the distribution of power” in society, especially between the people and the government. This is reflected in a famous maxim of political activism, which holds that “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” as it was articulated by Benjamin Franklin.

In March 2020, as widespread lockdowns were being implemented during the initial spread of COVID-19, Franklin’s cautionary words were recycled by the Cato Institute in an article opposing such public health measures. A more specific example of the same principle was on display at a recent protest held in Calgary on Oct. 30, which opposed the mandatory use of masks and other face coverings in schools to limit the airborne spread of COVID-19. Such policies, which require people to wear masks in indoor public places, are known as mask mandates.

The mask mandate that provoked the protest was relatively harmless. It exempted children in grades three and below, and only concerned other students who were within two meters of their classmates — the most common distance at which coronavirus droplets are spread to others through the air. For the sake of practicality, many people find it easier to simply wear a mask throughout public interactions. Despite the laxity of the law, one sign displayed in a photo of the event read, “Masks are child abuse[!]”. A more diplomatic protester told CTV, “We’d like to see a more open forum where more input can be provided.” 

Fortunately, mask mandates are not currently up for a vote, but if they were, those seeking to rescind them would likely lose the vote. In September, one poll of 1,538 Canadian adults indicated that 83 per cent supported the imposition of mask mandates, and 88 per cent opposed anti-mask protests. 

Of course, public support alone does not mean that a given policy is correct or that its opponents are wrong. Nor should somebody’s liberties simply be overridden by a majority with no hope of appeal. It must be determined whether the opponents have a sufficiently strong case to forgo masks on the grounds of personal freedom. It is not evident, in my opinion, that they do.

For the sake of practicality, mask mandates are one policy that allows people to balance some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy with the health of the economy and the wider population. During April, Austria saw a 90 per cent decline in confirmed cases of COVID-19, after adopting a nationwide mask mandate at the start of the month. The Czech Republic and Slovakia, which implemented similar mask mandates, had far lower rates of infection and death than countries that did not, such as the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain. 

As for ethics, the most pressing question is how the freedom that is being sacrificed stacks up against the freedom of people who would otherwise be sickened by maskless individuals. Masks do not threaten the health of their users, whereas coronavirus threatens the health of those who contract it. If it is uncomfortable or annoying for a few people to wear a scratchy, tight-fitting face mask, how much more uncomfortable is it for many more people to be bedridden, racked with fevers, diarrhea, cough, vomiting, sore throat, joint pain, confined in self-isolation, at risk of death and living in constant fear of a virus for which there is currently no cure? People can do little without good health. I am reminded of a rhetorical question posed by Socrates, who asked, “Did ever man…believe in the existence of human things, and not of human beings?”

In order to act freely, humans must have health that is adequate to their choices.

There is, of course, such a concept as absolute freedom, in which one can do whatever one pleases without repercussions. By the same token, however, the most ruthless tyrants and criminals in history, which anti-maskers see themselves as struggling against, could also claim to be intrepid defenders of freedom. 

In society, where we have to consider the interests of others in order to live, we usually do not normally give absolute freedom any serious thought but accept limitations on our freedom in order for every person to enjoy it. Each person only has the freedom to do things that cannot harm other people and in respecting such limitations, they subconsciously ask the same of others for themselves. Thus, the 18th century philosopher Thomas Paine contended, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Presumably, a society in which all people have some freedom is more desirable than one in which a tiny minority has total freedom, but the majority has little or none.

Moreover, the anti-mask case can be made by the use of mask mandates themselves. Even if one wishes to remain dead-set against masks in spite of all the evidence, they would be able to do away with them sooner by obeying the recommended steps for social distancing, mask usage, limiting unnecessary outings and limiting the number of people they interact with. Following the advice of experts would bring an end to the pandemic more quickly, and also expedite society’s recovery to the point that masks would become unnecessary. The sooner the anti-mask movement submits to the guidance of public health organizations, the sooner the pandemic will end, allowing them to exercise their bizarre strain of “liberty” once more. But many who are opposed to masks, however, are also opposed to similar COVID-19 regulations, of which mask mandates are some of the most convenient and effective measures.

In short, the anti-mask movement cannot make its case as a valiant and cautious minority attempting to salvage a free society under threat by a foolish majority. We may often laugh at the idea of the majority always being right, or of the infallibility of majority rule. However, as the anti-mask movement indicates, the danger of an unconvinced minority who refuses to be accountable to others is an even greater danger, and a much more relevant one during this pandemic. Only by limiting unrealistic expectations of liberty can we gain safety as a prerequisite for the liberty we all desire. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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