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There is a third question in the raging virus debate of 2020:

3. Should each of us have the right to make our own choices during an epidemic, in the name of independence, liberty, and freedom?

(See my previous blog post for a discussion of the first two questions.)

One Strategy: Target the Sick

Let’s start by examining people’s liberty, or lack thereof, during the Great Plague of London (1664-1665). Then we can compare that historical time to our own time.

In his book A Journal of the Plague Year (read it online here), Daniel Defoe explains that the Londoners of 1664-1665 had no idea how the plague originated. However, they did have some scant information about how it spread. It was obvious that the plague was spread through proximity. If one person was reported to be infected in a particular neighborhood, it was more likely that that person’s neighbors, and especially the people living or working in the same home as that person, would be infected, than someone who lived and worked across town.

So the city instituted a system of quarantine. But it was not universal quarantine. It was targeted toward homes in which people were showing symptoms. People in other homes retained their full liberty.

Defoe recounts in detail how the city would appoint watchmen to stand guard over infected houses, 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts. If someone in your household was discovered to have the plague, you and everyone in your house would be locked inside and prevented from leaving. The watchmen would bring food and necessaries as requested. You were not, thus, in danger of starvation; but you were in danger of catching the bubonic plague. You were shut in with the sick person for at least 20 days . . . and more or less left to die.

The Question of Liberty

Shut-up Londoners quietly, clandestinely, revolted. It became common, Defoe explains, for people to find ways to trick the watchman and escape. There were even extreme cases in which people killed the watchman in order to escape their own houses. Once at liberty, people would secretly find lodging with friends. Unfortunately, these people, having lived with a sick person, were often infected themselves, though they might not show symptoms until after moving in with their friends. The friends were then infected. And the friends’ house was then shut up and watched—and the cycle continued.

Here is Defoe’s assessment of the situation:

“This is one of the reasons why I believed then, and do believe still, that the shutting up houses thus by force, and restraining, or rather imprisoning, people in their own houses, as I said above, was of little or no service in the whole. Nay, I am of opinion it was rather hurtful, having forced those desperate people to wander abroad with the plague upon them, who would otherwise have died quietly in their beds.”

The strategy of using force did not work. People who did not feel sick insisted on gaining their freedom from being shut inside a plague-infected home.

Of course they did! Nobody wants to be abandoned for dead. And everybody knew that the best chance to escape the plague was to run away from it.

Unfortunately, running away from it was also the best chance to spread the plague to others.

Another Strategy: Make Guidelines for Everyone

What an awful situation. Today, scientists’ recommendations during an epidemic are different.

As in 17th-century London, we do target the sick—strongly recommending, and in some cases requiring, people who are sick, and also people who have been in contact with the sick, to go into quarantine.

But unlike in 17th-century London, when people are very sick, we don’t leave them to die in their homes; we take them to hospitals, where medical professionals have advanced techniques than can, in many cases, help them recover.

Also unlike in 17th-century London, we have recommendations and requirements for everyone. For example, everyone is being told to stay home if possible, and everyone is being told to wear a mask in public.

This targeting of everyone is extremely important, because, as Defoe noted, “a body may be capable to continue infected without the disease discovering itself many days, nay, weeks together . . .” Let’s leave aside the science of the bubonic plague and talk about the incubation period of COVID-19. Scientists have determined that people can likely be infectious with COVID-19 for up to two weeks without experiencing symptoms.

Yes—people can be going to work and school, hanging out with friends and relatives, taking public transportation, and so on for days and days before realizing that they may have the infection.

The upshot of this fact? Quarantining the sick and those in contact with the sick, while letting everyone else do whatever they want, makes no sense. This is one of the most important lessons Defoe wants us to learn from his book! He repeats this idea over and over again, all throughout the book: forcibly quarantining some people, while letting everyone else do whatever they want, does not work.

I Want My Freedom

Being forcibly shut up and left to die, without remedy, is clearly not freedom.

However—being recommended or required to stay home, if possible, and also wear a mask in public, are not the same thing.

Sure, we might feel more free when we can roam in public without a mask, . . . but if this action results in disease ravaging the community in which you and your friends and family live, is this really freedom?

Isn’t the freedom from living in a community ravaged by disease an important freedom?

I mean, you could sit here and say, “I don’t want a traffic light in this busy intersection. I want to be free to drive into the intersection anytime I want, and at whatever speed I want, regardless of what other vehicles are nearby!” But the freedom from hitting, or getting hit by, another vehicle would seem to be a more important freedom than the freedom to drive however you want.

When people refuse to wear a mask—or when they mock others for wearing a mask—this is actually a move away from freedom.

I don’t want my liberty to be curtailed. And my liberty is curtailed when a virus is allowed to spread amongst the community unchecked. In the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting universal wearing of masks is the same as promoting freedom.

Are you pro-freedom?

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