Opinion | As coronavirus tears through the country, public health measures can save lives

After several days, the plant partly came back online, and we squeaked through. We took our public health responsibility extremely seriously. We were ready to do whatever was necessary to preserve the public health.

Strong public health powers are vital for government to have and use. Every day we see the results of the failure to use them aggressively as the novel coronavirus rips through our country. Criminal law protects us from one another, and so does public health law.

In December 1941, the American president issued a call to arms, a call to sacrifice. Nothing would be normal for years. Wives would go to work to make up for the lost income of husbands, food would be rationed, fuel for cars and homes would suffer shortages, travel for family visits and recreation would become next to impossible. Young men would be torn from their families. But the nation realized from the start that the stakes were high, though the outcome of the war was far from certain despite the personal commitment of millions to sacrifice as necessary. Ultimately, some 405,000 American service members made the supreme sacrifice in a struggle that lasted almost four years. 

Today, we are told that a large number of Americans will die of an invisible enemy if we fail to take rudimentary public health steps to defeat the spread of that enemy. Some 130,000 lives could be saved by the end of February if most Americans followed simple public health measures: wear a mask in public, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently. But for many, evidently, that is too high a price to pay; for many, mask-wearing is a surrender of personal freedom. 

Some in our society oppose government efforts to urge or require social distancing and wearing of masks on the grounds that such requirements restrict individual freedom. Similar arguments are made against efforts to curb atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases, despite ample evidence that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and more efficient machines would expand individual freedom and create prosperity. The overwhelming majority of people believe in social justice. It is enshrined in our religious teachings and embodied in our laws. 

In a just society, we do not have an inalienable right to harm or put at risk others in pursuit of personal freedom. Individuals, corporations and states do not own the planet’s atmosphere or oceans, so they do not have an inalienable right to use these global commons in a manner that causes undue risk or harm to others, including future generations. In a just society, justice trumps freedom.

Put on your masks and support effective measures to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Thomas B. Cochran, Arlington

I am a federal employee, part of a workforce of more than 900 employees. We work all day every day with the public, and we have had fewer novel coronavirus infections than the White House.

We prioritize masks and gloves, hand-washing and wiping down frequently touched areas. When we feel sick, we use leave and see our doctors. When someone is diagnosed, we use video footage to do contact tracing, and we send people home if they have been close to an infected person. We follow sound policy, and our people are not getting sick.

The White House should not be experiencing an outbreak. Its employees have health insurance and sick leave. They are well paid, work just one job and probably don’t live in crowded housing or take public transportation.

Why is the virus spreading at the White House? With all that White House staffers have been given, they cannot mind a few rules and do effective contact tracing.

Margaret Meyers, Merion Station, Pa.

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