Veronika Tait: Ignoring a pandemic is not freedom

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1,000 people protested the government mandated shutdown of businesses on the grounds of Salt Lake City Hall, Saturday. The protest was organized by Utah Business Revival aimed at Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilsonand Governor Gary Herbert policies on COVID-19 and social distancing, April 18, 2020.

People have gathered across the nation to protest shelter-in-place orders. They claim their right to assemble has been violated and their freedom is being taken away. I disagree.

COVID-19 is a global threat that is more contagious and more deadly than any virus in recent history. When we ignore shelter-in-place orders and refuse social distancing guidelines, we put the most vulnerable at risk. We have never had the freedom to harm others. We have never had the freedom to do as we please without regard to how our actions affect those around us.

Shelter-in-place orders are important for the common good. Just as everyone is asked each year to get the flu vaccine to protect the young and old, we’re being asked to adjust our lives in order to save lives. I find it sad that this is the topic inspiring people to find their voice. This is the order leading to protests, calls and letters to representatives and civil disobedience.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." I respect those who are taking actions to create change. To demand greater freedom for all. It's simply unfortunate that so many believe laws protecting the elderly and immunocompromised to be unjust.

There are many injustices and threats to our freedom that require our attention. There is a real need to organize and demand more from our representatives in areas where our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are genuinely threatened.

For example, we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. The United States has 4% of the world's population, yet we house 25% of the prison population. Many are nonviolent offenders who could be better served by alternatives such as rehabilitation and community service. As one article from Time Magazine said,

“Research has shown that high incarceration rates of the sort we have seen since the 1980s not only destabilize disadvantaged communities; they actually increase the incidence of crime. That is why former Attorney General Eric Holder recently argued that as a nation, we should aspire to send fewer people to prison for shorter periods.”

Prisons and jails, where inmates have little physical distance and no access to products such as hand sanitizer, are breeding grounds for viruses. While releasing those who qualify could save lives, it’s not happening quickly enough. Is mass incarceration freedom? Where is the outrage on behalf of our marginalized inmates?

The U.S. also has the greatest income inequality of all the G7 nations. The middle class is shrinking, while income growth has largely gone to the upper class. This disparity becomes starker as the coronavirus impacts the lower class more fiercely than other populations. Is wealth concentrating more and more at the top freedom?

The U.S. has fallen from being classified as a full democracy to a flawed democracy by the Democracy Index. One study from Cambridge University found “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Is that freedom?

The U.S. pays almost twice as much for health care as other industrialized nations with worse outcomes. Many currently losing their jobs are also losing their health care. Others still working can’t afford to take time off to care for sick family members or recover themselves. Is that freedom?

Given the havoc of the current global pandemic, many problems have come to light. Let us organize together to fight for better health and economic policies that will protect the most vulnerable among us.

Veronika Tait

Veronika Tait, Saratoga Springs, is a social psychologist who works as an adjunct professor.