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Freedom and Responsibility in the Time of Pandemic

To wear or not to wear a face mask? That is the question.

Let me start with a reality check. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both recommended that masks can help prevent the spread of Covid-19. The more people wear masks, the lesser the possibility of people – including the asymptomatic ones – spreading the virus to others.

Some health experts have even said that wearing masks is one of the easiest ways to keep the economy open.

The question for me as an individual living in a community is this: What is my responsibility to these people so that I don’t end up infecting them with the virus? I can be asymptomatic, and, therefore, a potential carrier of the virus. Since I am not living in an island, I know that whatever I do will affect others, rightly or wrongly. This is not science. It’s simple common sense.

Given that the surge of Covid-19 cases has remained unabated, it becomes the responsibility of everyone to help stop the spread of the virus. The fight to curb the spread of Covid-19 becomes the responsibility of everyone, from the first responders to the small business people, from the political leaders down to every citizen.

Wearing a mask, in addition to washing our hands regularly and maintaining social distancing, is the least that we can do in this fight. It may be a very small act, but it is significant nonetheless. My only complaint in wearing a mask is that it makes my eyeglasses fog up when I start breathing. But it’s no big deal. I just take my eyeglasses off and life continues. I don’t think I will die of suffocation by wearing a mask. I have been wearing it for months whenever I go out and I am still alive. I don’t feel any adverse health effects.

But I am not naïve. There are people who passionately argue that wearing a mask infringes on one’s freedom. In a highly individualistic society like the United States, the culture places a high value on individual freedom, where people can do their own thing. Society is viewed as composed of independent individuals who are free to pursue their own goals. In contrast, Asian culture places high value on collectivism, the common good. Thus, in many Asian countries, the practice of wearing masks is more common and no one complains that it infringes on one’s freedom.

We can talk about individual freedom every day, but when people are dying because of this pandemic, that’s where the rubber meets the road. We need to sacrifice our personal freedom temporarily for the sake of the common good. When society as a whole suffers from pandemic, individual freedom should give way to the common good. Every individual must do everything possible to protect one another. We just cannot afford to jeopardize the health of our family and neighbors.

Come on, guys, there is no significant difference between banning smoking in public places where secondhand smoking can cause serious health problems and mandating people to wear masks to reduce infecting others in close proximity. Very few would argue that the smoking ban violates their freedom. In the same manner, very few would question the legalization of wearing seat belts to save lives.

Many of us think that freedom is the ability to do anything we want. The problem with this is that we are not really completely free to do anything we want. For example, a person may want to join the parade naked, but that person will probably be arrested by the police. A person may decide to jump from a building and fly with his arms spread like an eagle. But that’s physically impossible. Simply put, freedom is limited in some ways; it is not absolute.

Freedom stands for something greater than just the right to do whatever we want. To most reasonable people, freedom means more than just the ability to do what we want. Certainly freedom means the right to do as one pleases but not when our choice starts to infringe on another person’s freedom or lead us away from established principles of right and wrong.

It was the philosopher J.S. Mill who introduced the concept called “harm principle”, that is, we hold not to do anything that causes harm to another person. True, we value our freedom. But the flip side of having freedom is being responsible for one’s action and being mindful of the welfare of others. We are not free to shout fire inside a packed movie house that will cause panic and trigger a deadly stampede, if there is no fire. That’s totally being irresponsible. We are not free to knowingly endanger other people. We are not free to cause health risks to other people by not wearing masks because the latter also have the right to live a healthy life and not be infected with Covid-19.

I see the controversy over wearing masks in the US as a political one. While many Democratic leaders are open to mandating people to wear masks in public, Republicans, arguing for individual freedom, are opposed to it. President Donald Trump himself made fun of President-elect Biden for wearing a mask during the campaign, implying that wearing a mask was a political statement against him. What is supposed to be a public health issue has now been politicized.

Trump’s intransigence has made the wearing of masks intensely political and divisive. He has successfully turned mask wearing into a culture war. Grocery stores and some business establishments have to confront customers for refusing to wear masks. Anti-mask wearers have picketed city halls to show their disgust. A security guard was shot and killed in Michigan for telling a customer to wear a face mask.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 continues to spread and people are dying. It’s too high a price to pay not to wear a mask simply because “it’s my right not to.” It’s sad. It’s sickening. It is totally irresponsible.


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