Category Archives: Freedom

It Sucks to be a Conservative

 

In Canada and in the United States many people, but nowhere near a majority of the people, are objecting to actions by the government that they see as “over reaching” or imposing duties on them that are not justified in a free and democratic society. Some have gone as far as to call the health restrictions imposed by governments as “authoritarian” or “fascist.” Protesters in Manitoba, particularly in southern Manitoba, a region deeply committed to conservatism, have been making very similar remarks.

As Max Boot reported, in the Washington Post,

“Republicans explode with fury,” noted Fox “News” Channel. Republican governors threatened to file suit to stop what Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp called “this blatantly unlawful overreach.” Fox News accused Biden of being “an authoritarian” and declaring “war on millions of Americans.” Breitbart claims he went “full totalitarian” and the Federalist called it a “fascist move.”

 

Blinded by partisanship and populism, Republicans have lost all perspective. The crux of their argument — to the extent that they have one — is that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no right to tell companies with at least 100 employees that workers must either get tested weekly for COVID-19 or present proof of vaccination.

This is the same OSHA that has issued myriad regulations over the years governing such aspects of workplace safety as the placement of step bolts. (“The employer must ensure . . . step bolts are uniformly spaced at a vertical distance of not less than 12 inches (30 cm) and not more than 18 inches (46 cm) apart.”) I have no idea how many workers have been injured by misplaced step bolts — frankly, I’m not even sure what step bolts are — but I am guessing it is not many. I do know, however, how many Americans have been killed by COVID- 19: 655,000 and counting. If OSHA can protect against the menace of step bolts, I’m pretty sure it can protect against the deadliest pandemic in a century.

 

While I generally agree with these important points, I believe the last paragraph goes too far. This is not a perfect analogy. Placing bolts a certain distance apart does not impose a heavier burden on the citizen. Inserting a needle into an arm and injecting a substance that the individual believes will be harmful to him or her against his or her will, is a much more intrusive violation of the rights of the citizen and will require a higher burden of proof on the state to justify. Yet, I think it can be justified.

We know that conservatives in Canada and the US generally object to governments telling businesses what to do. At least they object when their political opponents impose their will. When their own party does it the objections are much less vociferous. For example in the United States, some governments such as the state of Florida have mandated (I use that word deliberately) that businesses are not permitted to demand vaccine passports from their customers. So far, at least 6 state governments led by Republicans, have passed laws prohibiting private businesses from doing exactly that. In Canada, and the United States, governments have in the past required students to demonstrate to school officials that they have taken a host of vaccinations for diseases such as polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps and rubella. They did that of course because those measures helped to prevent serious illnesses and these requirements were imposed without fuss or muss, because the issue of vaccinations at the time were not controversial. Nearly everyone saw the wisdom of such measures. The reason of course, is that vaccines were not political issues as they have become recently. President Trump played down the significance of the pandemic and told people it would just magically go away and they had nothing to fear. As Boot said, “His cult followers therefore felt compelled to echo his Panglossian outlook by falsely claiming that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu or promoting quack remedies such as hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin as miracle cures.”

As a result of identity politics, where people refused to take the vaccine or do take the vaccine, not on the basis of science, or analysis, or data, but on the basis of which political group they identify. As a result, in the US Boot reported that

“According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 86 per cent of Democrats have gotten vaccinated but only 54 per cent of Republicans. That, in turn, translates into rising numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the red states. Over the past couple of weeks, the United States has been losing an average of 1,579 people a day to COVID-19. More than a third of those deaths (570 a day) are in just two red states: Florida and Texas.”

 

For similar reasons, Florida led by Republicans, where more than 3 times as many people per capita have been dying from Covid-19 than California which is led by Democrats. The rate of death in Florida is 10 times higher than New York which is led by Democrats. In fact, recently, where the US was suffering 1,579 deaths per day from Covid-19 and more than 1/3rd of them were in just two conservative led states, namely Texas and Florida. It sucks to be a conservative in the US!

As Boot said,

“Republican governors don’t seem to mind killing their constituents in the name of a twisted theory of “medical freedom,” but that doesn’t mean the president of the United States is helpless to protect the life and wellbeing of its citizens. In fact, as Washington Post contributing columnist Leana S. Wen argues, Biden still has not gone far enough — for example, he still needs to mandate proof of vaccination for airline and train passengers.

 But at least Biden has given up the hope that he could reason with COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers. The Republican reaction to his sensible mandate shows that much of the right is beyond the reach of reason. It is now time to use federal power to protect the most basic of civil rights: the right to life.”

 

Although not every one will agree, I must say that I do agree.

 

Difficult Cases make Bad Law and Bad Rules

 

Even with all the facts and good principles, there  usually are some difficult cases in many ethical disputes. There always are difficult cases in ethical disputes. What should be done about people who can’t be vaccinated for good reasons? For example, I understand pregnant women are being advised not to take the vaccines until enough scientific evidence is obtained that confirms it is safe for their fetus. Recently I heard that advice is being moderated by some doctors.

What should be done about people who have underlying medical conditions that make it unwise or unhealthy for them to take vaccines? Perhaps such people might have to wait until enough other people have taken the vaccines that herd immunity has been established. That is unfortunate for them, but is it  not a reasonable restriction to keep them isolated until it is safe for them to do so? Is it too much to ask them to remain at home and if they venture out social distance from others? Perhaps reasonable accommodation can be arranged for such people. If they venture out unprotected, they don’t harm only themselves. They endanger us all and our medial system as well. People should be allowed to do as they please (at least more than now) after they achieve anti-bodies or vaccines. Until it is established that they can’t transmit the virus we have the right to demand they follow health restrictions.

Freedom is an important good, but it is not  an absolute one.

 

Good Facts Make Good Ethics

 

When it comes to Covid-19 the facts are not clear nor free from controversy. It would be nice if we could delay having to make  decisions until all the fact are known, but in a pandemic we don’t have that luxury. Some things must be decided now, on the basis of the best facts available.

We must also admit that the “facts” are constantly changing. Covid-19 is a novel disease. It was unknown to science until a little more than a year ago. When it first became known, the scientists had to give advice based on minimal knowledge. Most of it was on conjecture based on other similar diseases such as SARS and the common flu among others. Now they have a lot more knowledge, but it is still mainly preliminary knowledge. So we don’t really have good facts. And good facts are needed to arrive at good ethics.

Some people were annoyed when scientists at first said, masks were not recommended because they were unlikely to prevent disease spread. They based that on the basis of things they had learned from earlier similar infectious diseases. Later scientific evidence accumulated that the scientists were wrong in their earlier prediction and they quickly changed their advice. As a result some governments made masks mandatory in some situations. Scientists did what they should do. They changed their scientific advice based on better science and more facts. To have done otherwise would have been malfeasance. Only religious leaders can be expected to give infallible advice forever!

In applying the principle of John Stuart Mill I enunciated yesterday, we must acknowledge that imposing restrictions on people as the authorities have done during this pandemic  is a severe curtailment of freedoms people are ordinarily free to exercise. It even amounts to an interference with religious rights guaranteed by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Is such a restriction justified?

First, an infringement on a fundamental freedom is not justified if there is a better way. The impairment of the right must be the most minimal impairment needed to prevent the harm. If I am not at risk of likely spreading the dangerous Coronavirus  the people or the government, they elect are not justified in restricting my freedom of movement. The default position is liberty. I am free to do what I want unless the government proves that my actions will likely create an unreasonable risk of serious harm to others. The onus of proof must be on the government. The government does not have to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. It is sufficient if it can establish, on a balance of probabilities, that my actions will likely lead to serious harm.

The harm avoided by imposition of restrictions cannot be a trivial one either. The avoidance of trivial harms to not justify interference with fundamental freedoms. For example, such restrictions would not be justified to avoid the common flu. The government must also establish that reasonable alternatives, which would have less effect on my fundamental freedoms are not available. In other words, it must prove that curtailment of my freedom does not exceed the most minimal curtailment that would be sufficient to avoid the harm. If the restrictions are not necessary to achieve the public good, such as freedom from a serious disease, then the governmental restrictions are not justified.

The imposed harm by the government  (e.g compulsory vaccinations) must also be effect at avoiding the harm it is trying to avert (e.g. serious illness). If they are not effective the infringement of freedom is not justified.

Using these principles how do they related to the facts on the ground? First are the vaccines effective at reducing risk of serious harm? There is growing evidence that the vaccines (all of them) are very effective at reducing the risk of serious illness. They are not as effective at stopping minor illness, but we can live with that. We want to avoid the serious illness and death.

To begin with, one must also weigh the harm inflicted on the people who would have chosen not to get vaccinated. The large weight of scientific evidence is that most harms resulting from the vaccination are extremely minor if not non-existent. No more reasonable harm that impairs our freedom less than compulsory vaccinations has been discovered.

Secondly, recent studies have shown that all the vaccines approved so far are about 95% effective at preventing serious illness. Most people who took the vaccines did not become seriously ill and did not die. Even if 1 person in 20 dies after the vaccination, or gets seriously ill any way, the benefits to the majority greatly outweigh the detriments to the minority who would have chosen not to be vaccinated had they been free to do so.

Currently scientific evidence is still in a state of flux as more information becomes available. For example, there have been new variants of the virus that have resulted from mutations. These appear to be more contagious and, in some cases, also more severe. As a result, dealing with this virus demands even more diligence. Some people get annoyed by this. They call it flip flopping. This unfair. This is how science, unlike theology, works.

I will continue this analysis in tomorrow’s blog.

 

An Ethical Approach to Vaccine Passports

 

Would it be fair to opening up society in a time of pandemic only to those with Passports (or other documents) that could satisfy us that allowing people who have had one of the vaccines for Covid-19 or had the “benefit” of having contracted the disease and developed sufficient antibodies? In either case, presumably it is safe to let these people wander around, more of less freely, while we continue to curtail the freedoms of those who don’t have such a passport.

First, it is clear, that current health restrictions in Canada are fundamentally restrictive and a substantial interference with our freedom of movement and freedom to gather as we see fit. Clearly this violates a constitutional right, as I have argued in an earlier blog post. Ordinarily such prohibitions could not be justified in a free and democratic society. But these are special circumstances? Are they special enough to provide the justification?

I think a good place to start my answer to this very interesting question is the classic book On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. Mill recognized in 1859 that people had the right to fear “the tyranny of the majority” which, he said, “is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” In other words, Mill argued there are limits on what a majority is entitled to do. As he said,

“There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”

To Mill as to many lovers of freedom, all that makes life valuable requires there to be reasonable limits or restraints on the actions of other people, either directly or through their elected representatives. Mills posed a clear answer to what he considered those reasonable limits. Mill said that there was one very simple principle that provided an answer to what are the reasonable limits. He elegantly put it this way:

“…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forebear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting upon him any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desirable to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one for which he is amenable is to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

This is the fundamental principle of classic  liberalism. The principle is often called the principle of autonomy. In simplified terms, this means that everyone should be free to do whatever he or she wants, without hindrance, unless the exercise of that freedom will harm others.

With some limitations, not relevant to this discussion I accept that principle. How is to be applied to the question at hand. To do that we must look at the facts, as best we can, for as Professor Schafer said, good facts produce good ethics.

In my next blog posting I shall show how this principle applies to the Covid-19 Passport.

Conflicting Stories; Colliding Freedoms

 

We are hearing a lot of conflicting stories about Covid-19 and its variants and the vaccines. In Europe it seems like the pandemic has fresh legs that make it spread widely again, with more raging force than ever before. Yet in Manitoba we are “cautiously” opening up according to our Chief Medical Officer Brent Roussin. Is this really cautious? Why does he not think the same thing that is happening now in Europe won’t happen here too? I hope he is right, but I fear he is wrong. I hope he is not feeling the pressure from religious people like those in the Church of God Restoration outside of Steinbach, and others, that want to open up faster.

Yet the Winnipeg Free Press today reported,

“CANADA’S chief public health officer said Sunday that the collective efforts to fight COVID-19 are paying off, even as the country sits at a “critical juncture” in the fight against fast spreading variants.

Dr. Theresa Tam said on Twitter that COVID-19 disease activity continues to decline and vaccination is heading in the right direction.

“Our collective effort has begun to tip the balance in our favour,” she wrote. But she said Canadians need to maintain COVID-19 precautions to protect each other, especially as cases of more contagious variants are mounting across the country.”

On the other hand, the same article reported that “The faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom has made its way into some schools in British Columbia, health officials announced late Saturday.”

 

Is that not concerning, considering what we know about the new variants of Covid-19?  I know vaccines help, but frankly not many Canadian arms have received it. I would feel a lot better if they did.

Of course, as we all know Covid-19 is amplifying existing inequities. That same article reported on this issue as follows:

” In a message published Sunday, Tam noted that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on racialized communities. She said cases are 1.5 to 5 times higher in racialized communities in Toronto and Ottawa, while people living on First Nations reserves have a 69 per cent higher rate of infection compared to the general population.

“These disproportionate impacts among racialized and Indigenous communities are not due to biological differences between groups or populations,” she wrote.

“Rather, they reflect existing health inequities that are strongly influenced by a specific set of social and economic factors — things like income, education, employment and housing that shape an individual’s place in society.”

She said it’s imperative to work to fight racism in workplaces, education and health and social services systems, which she said has contributed to vaccine hesitancy in some communities and helped to create the inequitable living and working conditions that make some groups more susceptible to COVID-19.”

 

Often, I think William Faulkner was right: “We can never catch up with injustice.” But, I wish our religious people would not divert the attention of our health officials from fighting Covid-19 to dealing with their demands that they deal instead with their dubious claims of infringement on their religious freedom. I wish those religious zealots instead spent more time working to eradicate social injustice. Would that not make God happier?

How many of us have blood on our hands?

 

I read a disturbing article in the Winnipeg Free today by Melissa Martin. It brought home the situations in our Intensive Care Units (‘ICU’). I wish all Manitobans would read it. Especially those who have been reckless about endangering others and our health system by their careless and selfish attitudes to Covid-19.

Martin pointed out how our ICUs are being stretched to the limit. The nurses there, particularly those temporary and poorly trained extender nurses who don’t normally work in ICUs, told her a little bit about what life was like in the front lines of this war. The stress is nearly unendurable.

First, there is the stress of working in life or death situations without proper training.  One of the nurses said she has been “gripped by constant anxiety.” She was an experienced nurse, but she was not experienced or trained to work in an ICU until she was called in as an “extender nurse.”  Manitoba was forced to increase its ICU capacity by 50% because of the steady influx of patients. As Martin pointed out, “Still, pressure on ICUs remains high: as of Monday, 102 patients were in critical care, including 38 with COVID19-related illness. Before the pandemic, the province had 72 total ICU beds.” Normally, nurses like her who move to an ICU get months of training including hands-on learning. She got one day’s training! Then she is put in charge of patients whose lives are at risk! Think about that stress for a minute.

She called it a “steep learning curve.” The nurse said that every day in December when she went to work, she cried. As Martin reported, the nurse “often felt as if she was left to fend for herself. It wasn’t for lack of support from the regular unit staff; it’s just they had too many demands on their time to take her fully under their wing. That made worse the uncertainty of navigating medications and devices with which she had little experience.I sometimes thought I had a high-pressure job. That was nothing compared to this pressure! Unsurprisingly, the nurse said, “my mental health has taken a nose-dive.”  You think?

The nurse said,

“The extenders I’ve talked to, it’s mostly been negative experiences,” Isabelle said. “They’re not happy. They’re anxious. They’re nervous they’re going to be placed in a situation where they’re not comfortable.”

 

Another of the nurses pointed out she understood why others could not help her. Everyone in the ICU was overwhelmed. As a result, even though she was not properly trained, she had no choice to deal with the problems. Her superiors were also overwhelmed. This was particularly acute because they lost some staff during that time. As she said,

“They couldn’t really monitor everything I was doing… It’s not for lack of people trying to support me. It’s just been this overwhelming surge of acuity like we haven’t seen before, and also this reduction in staff.”

 The nurse explained what it felt like to work under such conditions. She compared it to war conditions! Here is what she said,

 “COVID was spoken of as a war. It was, “We’re fighting COVID, and the front-line people, they’re our soldiers.’ But I didn’t know we were going to staff this army with like, three people. I’ve never seen that level of excellence we’re talking about. I’ve only seen people in war, and in suffering.”

 

I feel profound empathy for anyone who had to work under such war-like conditions. As Martin explained that nurses felt it in different ways. During the peak nurses saw as many as four patients die in one shift. Each emptied bed was filled swiftly by what Sarah called a “conveyor belt” of incoming COVID-19 cases, a new set of lives hanging by a thread. Those deaths were made even harder by the fact, in most cases, families were not allowed in the building.

Understandably some of the nurses feel they have been treated badly. They have been treated badly. The ones to blame here are not the health care officials who supervise hospitals in horrendous circumstances. They are dealing with a new coronavirus. The ones to blame are Manitobans! Ordinary everyday Manitobans who have been treating Covid-19 cavalierly and negligently are to blame. People who have not been treating the disease seriously and following the Manitoba health guidelines. That includes many of us. Not just the Christians from my own community who have been selfishly putting their own need to join in religious services with their fellow congregants, but definitely those. Is exercising our “right” to ignore health guidelines and our right to religious freedom more important than protecting our health care workers and the patients they are trying to save? We all could have done better and made the jobs of health care workers easier. As a result of our actions they  are incredibly stressed while they try to save lives. Many of us have blood on our hands!

Free Speech in a pandemic

 

I have seen in many places, including Steinbach, and on TV reporting, at Trump rallies, and even the rampage on the Capitol, signs that say things like this:

“mask free zone,” or “No Masks,” or “The media is the virus.”

Statements like this are dangerous in a health pandemic. We are entitled to free speech, but are we entitled to make blatantly false statements that contradict all available science to such an extent that public health measures are compromised and lives endangered? How is this different than shouting “Fire” in a dark and crowded theatre when there is no fire? How far does free speech go?

 

Too many people forget that free speech is important but not absolute.

 

 “Freedom fighters” Spread Falsehood As Steinbach’s Hospital Fills Up

 

This is what the Winnipeg Free Press recently said about my home town:

“As Manitoba recorded a record high COVID-19 death toll Saturday, nearly 200 people gathered in violation of public-health orders to protest lockdown measures, mask wearing and vaccines.”

Will they next protest the fact that they can’t drive 90 km per hour in a school zone? Is that what freedom is all about? What if my religion says I should be able to drive any speed I want?

Reeve Lewis Weiss said he does not trust the information being distributed by public-health officials and news media and that they have a right to refuse to wear masks, presumably no matter how many lives he endangers. He believes that if he does not feel sick he can’t transmit the disease to others and therefore poses no danger to them. This of course is contrary to accepted scientific evidence, but he does not seem bothered by that.

Weiss acknowledged people are dying and said he supports health-care workers, but he downplayed the seriousness of the virus and said he and others who attended the recent protest rally in Steinbach believe they can’t trust the information being distributed by public-health officials and news media, and that they have a right not to wear masks. Weiss also said, “It isn’t a good time to have to hold a rally when people are dying around us. But what you don’t realize, or many people don’t realize, people are always dying around us.”

Yes people are always dying but our hospital to my knowledge has never reached capacity before. A local nurse at our local hospital compared the situation there  to war time where the patients just keep coming. She warned us that health-care workers there have also reached capacity and can’t sustain their efforts much longer. Some people trying to get in to the local hospital had to be triaged in their cars in the parking lot, because there was no room in the hospital.

Meanwhile many of the other protesters referred to themselves as “freedom fighters.” As if having to wear a mask when in public is equivalent to people living under oppressive regimes like Syria. Is there any equivalence here?

Added to the toxic mix is of course religion. We live in the Bible belt and that is to be expected. It is part of the reason the media likes to keep an eye on us here. I am not saying all local religious people are the same as the protesters. But when I heard that one of the protesters yelled “Go home to the devil, you!” as provincial officials left the rally, I knew we were in trouble. These were government officials doing their best to ensure that the hospital could accept more patients if needed. Working to save lives in other words. The protesters treated them like Nazis.

Yet as this was going on “rally-goers listened to Christian music piped through loudspeakers affixed on a flatbed trailer and cheered as several speakers — including retired chiropractor Gerry Bohemier — decried shutting down churches and schools, imposing restrictive lockdown measures and mandating masks. They held signs with slogans such as “love over fear,” “honk for freedom” and “the media is the virus.”

To which I say: Honk if you love truth.

Freedom: Where is it?

 

In the community we lived in this winter, Johnson Ranch, Arizona, they have a lot of rules about what you can and cannot do. Fro example, we learned that there were a lot of picky community rules about the color of buildings—all tan. No other colors allowed except slightly different shades. So it seemed to me. At the community swimming pool we were asked to vote on which color of wall we liked best. And they were all basically the same.

They have rules about what kind of plants you can grow on your yard. You have to choose from an approved list.

They make available a book of such rules. Its pretty big. Apparently local Nazis enforce those rules. Sort of like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. I wondered, where is the freedom America loves so much? Doesn’t anyone care about freedom any more.Has it been sold  for sake of conformity. Everyone should be the same.

This reminds me of a song by Pete Seeger:

Little Boxes

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses all go to the university
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same
And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university
And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same
And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same

There’s a green one, and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

This is not just an American problem. Canadians are just Americans on Prozak. Canadian are just not as loud about freedom.

Where has all the freedom gone? Long time passing.