As COVID-19 continues to run its course across the United States, there are few aspects of American life that have avoided this pandemic’s disastrous impact. 

According to medical data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, over 100,000 Americans have succumbed to COVID-19. At the same time, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects that our nation will see over 130,000 deaths by early August as states begin to relax social distancing measures.

While the deaths from COVID-19 continue to mount, the economic carnage from shutdowns aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern American history. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate has skyrocketed to nearly 15 percent, with the economy slashing over 20 million jobs in April alone. Meanwhile, J.P. Morgan Chief Investment Officer Bob Michele predicted that our economy may not reach the levels of employment we enjoyed before the pandemic for 10-12 years.

But as thousands of Americans lose their lives to COVID-19 — and millions more forfeit their livelihoods — another, more subtle level of loss is rippling across the nation. It’s become clear that as this global pandemic continues to threaten people’s lives and our economy, our essential and celebrated freedoms as Americans are coming under increasing fire

Since governors across the nation have imposed stay-at-home orders in an effort to “flatten the curve,” our country has witnessed a slew of disturbing civil liberties violations that seemed unthinkable before COVID-19 turned life upside down. While it’s perfectly reasonable — and necessary — to expect changes to our daily lives in trying times like these, it seems that people across the nation have forgotten that our freedoms are never put on hold, even in the midst of crises. It’s clear our government has gone too far.

While COVID-19 continues to undoubtedly be a formidable threat, leaders have gone to unacceptable, sickening lengths to enforce government-mandated social distancing, threatening arrests and even jail time for violating stay-at-home orders. (Meanwhile, the stay-at-home orders themselves have come under scrutiny as Americans question how constitutional they really are.) In Dallas, Texas, a judge sent Shelley Luther, a salon owner, to jail for reopening her business and defying the stay-at-home order; Luther was called “selfish” in court even as she argued that she had no choice, saying her children were going hungry. After shock across the state, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited jail time for those who violate social distancing, freeing Luther.

Similar scenes are playing out across the country. In Philadelphia, PA., police violently removed a man from a bus for not wearing a face covering. Others have been fined or arrested for simply venturing outside for a walk or exercise. While this excessive, dangerous enforcement of social distancing is threatening for all Americans, the New York Times reports that people of color are being disproportionately arrested in particular. 

Beyond these incidents, it’s clear that our freedoms have been violated in countless other ways as well. For instance, Americans have been barred from visiting places of worship like churches and synagogues to exercise their freedom of religion, which meant that, for example, most Christians couldn’t go to church on Easter, their holiest day of the year. Meanwhile, in our criminal justice system, although the Constitution gives the accused the right to a speedy trial, a number of defendants have been forced to sit longer in jail as trial dates are pushed back. According to a recent article in the Lansing State Journal, “For defendants who are not in custody, the delay likely is an inconvenience. But for those in the county jail, the shutdown is an extra month — or more — that they have to wait for justice.” Moreover, governments across the country now openly discuss implementing advanced contact tracing and surveillance programs to help curb COVID-19, even though these programs would clearly infringe on our freedoms and privacy rights.

In addition to these civil liberties violations, the rhetoric of politicians and leaders across the country is downright disturbing. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that New Yorkers turn in those that are breaking social-distancing rules to the city, a move that some Americans quickly denounced as “communist.” In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot told residents that they would be treated like criminals if they didn’t follow social distancing regulations, saying, “We will shut you down, we will cite you, and if we have to, we will arrest you.” Lightfoot continued, “Don’t make us treat you like a criminal, but if you act like a criminal and you violate the law and refuse to do what’s necessary to save lives in the middle of a pandemic, we will take you to jail. Period.” It is understandable that New York and Chicago — along with a number of other hard-hit cities — are continuously grappling with how to deal with COVID-19, but there is a way to curb the spread of COVID-19 without such blatant disregard for our precious freedoms that we all celebrate as Americans.

None of this is to say that this pandemic is not a dangerous threat. On the contrary, COVID-19 will continue to put millions of Americans at risk every day until it is eradicated. But it has become overwhelmingly clear that the pandemic is being dealt with in a manner that is not consistent with the American values we hold so dear.

In the end, we have a clear duty to defend our freedoms and civil liberties, even in the midst of a global pandemic. While it is easy to preserve these vital freedoms in times of prosperity and peace, America’s founders designed our fundamental civil liberties for troubling times like these, when our freedoms would be most at risk from government interference. Without our freedoms in the worst and most uncertain periods, we don’t have any freedom at all.

Ultimately, there is a way for freedom to exist in a world with aggressive, intelligent measures to fight COVID-19. As Americans, we must find this balance between freedom and safety from COVID-19 immediately. Without such a balance, our prized freedoms are meaningless.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu

 

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