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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Give Us Liberty, or Give Us COVID-19?

Our need for liberty runs deep in America. How many lives is it worth?

Source: SidesImagery/Pexels

In effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the globe have advised, and in many cases required, citizens to stay in place. In America, 97% of us are under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. As a result, our daily lives have ground to a halt. Schools, universities, restaurants, bars, hotels, travel, concerts, plays, amusement parks, movie theaters, businesses, retail stores, and even most churches have closed their doors.

We feel as if we are living in an episode of the Twilight Zone, in some dystopian future in which life as we know it has been upended. We have never lived through anything like this. We miss being around our friends, family, classmates, and colleagues. We miss our normal lives.

In addition to our lives being upended, we are experiencing one of the worst financial disasters in modern history. In five weeks, the unemployment claims have shot up over 26 million. To put that into perspective, that is more than the net number of jobs that were created in a nine-and-a-half-year span since the last recession ended. We will be feeling the economic repercussions for years to come.

The suffering and death caused by the COVID-19 is real, but so is the price we are paying for shutting down the world. As the weeks drag on, more and more of us are ready to get our lives back. Protests against stay-at-home restrictions are appearing across America. It begs the question: How much risk are we as a society willing to take in order to get back our freedom ... to get our lives back to some semblance of normal?

The Toll That COVID-19 Is Taking

When it comes down to it, all of the shut-downs and stay-in-place directives are meant to save lives. In just a short span of a few months, over 178,000 people have died from COVID-19 worldwide, with over 45,000 of these being Americans. Given that the first American died on February 6 from COVID-19, it has killed these 45,000 people in less than two months. To put this in perspective, in recent days, COVID-19 is either the leading or one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. This is on par with the number of Americans who die every day from heart disease or cancer. Note these numbers are with various quarantine/stay-in-place restrictions in place. Without such measures, it was projected that around 2.2 million Americans might have died, and many times that amount worldwide.

Just How Deadly Is COVID-19?

Countries don't shut down and go into quarantine over the seasonal flu. We are doing this for COVID-19 because it appears to have a higher mortality rate than the flu. Yet, it is difficult to determine its mortality rate because we don't know how many people are infected with it. Certainly, it is not near as deadly as some of the worst plagues in human history (e.g., the Black Death killed about 50% of the population of Europe, smallpox killed around 300 million people in the 20th century alone). The Spanish Flu, which struck in 1918, was a particularly virulent strain and resulted in the deaths of about 50 million people, or about 2.7% of the world population at the time. Given that not everyone in the world contracted the Spanish Flu, this means that its mortality rate per infected individual would have been much higher than 2.7%. (Of course, with modern medicine, even the Spanish Flu would not be as deadly as it was 100 years ago).

COVID-19 is often compared to the seasonal flu, which killed about 34,000 Americans last year and about 300,000-650,000 people worldwide. This puts the flu at about a .1% mortality rate in America (i.e., it kills about 1 out of 1,000 infected people). It is worth noting that, historically in the U.S., the seasonal flu had a much higher mortality rate than it does now, and we did not shut the country down for it.

With many uncertainties still, a rough estimate of the mortality rate for people infected with COVID-19 is around .5% to 1% (i.e., about 1 out of every 100 to 200 infected people). However, it is very difficult to calculate because different countries and different age groups have different mortality rates. For example, a young, healthy person in America who has been infected with COVID-19 is much less likely to die of it than an elderly man in Italy who is a heavy smoker. Moreover, we don't know the infection rate in many countries because of limited testing. Up to (and possibly over) 25% of people with COVID-19 might not show ANY symptoms at all.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

While it makes sense to take many actions to stop the spread of this pandemic, there is a steep cost to shutting down the world. It's not just about the economy either. It's about our personal freedoms and quality of life.

Over the course of history, countless lives have been lost in the fight for liberty. Indeed, America has its roots in the war for liberty and independence. It was colonial patriot and founding father Patrick Henry who famously said, "Give me liberty or give me death." The Preamble of The Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776, reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Even forgetting the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights for a moment, America's founding fathers were onto something regarding liberty. Psychologically, humans do have a strong need for autonomy. According to self-determination theory, autonomy is one of the fundamental intrinsic psychological needs that motivates our behavior. When our autonomy is restricted, we often act in ways to gain it back, even if it harms us, which is known as psychological reactance. Many punishments, from "grounding" kids for misbehavior to imprisonment and solitary confinement for criminals are about depriving others of their freedom. The bottom line is that, for us to truly be happy in life, we need a healthy dose of freedom. It is one of the things that makes life worth living, as Patrick Henry famously noted.

United We Stand ... And Divided We Fall

In America, as in many parts of the world, partisan differences seem to be growing. Conservatives and liberals criticize one another for being wrong, idiotic, narrow-minded, ignorant, ill-informed, and biased. Such partisan differences are now appearing with the COVID-19 pandemic as people protest for their right to open America back up, even if it comes with some risks.

While many of us might be critical and dismissive of such protests, we shouldn't be. Here's the fundamental question: How much personal freedom are we willing to give up, and for how long, to save lives? A separate, but related issue, is: How much can the U.S. government (at federal, state, and/or local levels) limit our personal freedoms with the intention of saving lives?

It's true that many of our personal freedoms, such as driving, riding a motorcycle, cycling, scuba diving, rock climbing, hunting, skateboarding, and climbing a ladder, all come with risks. Yet, we are allowed to take them. Should we have the freedom to choose whether we want to risk exposure to COVID-19? Does one person's choice to accept the risk of exposure to COVID-19 infringe upon others who are less willing to take such risks?

Many of us are feeling like we no longer have a choice in the matter. Our government is making the decision for us to shut everything down. Our loss of liberty, is quite painful. On a related note, the collateral damage from the prolonged loss of freedom and financial ruin, from depression to suicide, is likely to mount as we stay-in-place.

Who Has the "Right" Values?

When it comes to making decisions about what is moral, what is right, our values come into play. As social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, conservatives and liberals alike tend to view "right" and "wrong" through different moral lenses. We can use this Moral Foundations Theory framework to understand why partisan differences are arising over stay-in-place directives. Many conservatives, especially libertarians, view the loss of personal freedoms as abhorrent and intolerable. Although liberty is important to liberals (or "progressives" as well, they generally are more willing to give up liberty with the belief that it is worth it to save lives. Still, there are many shades of grey.

Who can say what the right approach is? Who can say, with any confidence, where the line should be drawn between preserving personal freedom and saving lives? With so many uncertainties (e.g., how many more people will be infected and possibly die if we open up the country), we need to understand that no one has a definitive answer. At the same time, we need to respect one another's values and refrain from vilifying one another. Heated emotional exchanges will only serve to obscure the careful, reasoned, data-driven approach we need to take. Such an approach includes weighing in our need for freedom.

Our freedom will come with a certain level of risk, but it always has.

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