Our newly constituted Supreme Court ruled that the governor of New York State cannot limit the number of people assembling to pray. This ruling was in response to lawsuits brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese and Hasidic Jewish organizations which argued that the restrictions imposed violated the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of assembly and religion. This apparently reverses prior Supreme Court rulings that upheld the legality of narrowly defined public health measures that might impact religious organizations but were not targeting religious organizations or practices. It also runs contrary to the longstanding dictum that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
Apparently, the new court is comfortable with the devout bringing their children and vulnerable elderly to super-spreader events. And, why not? Since the start of this pandemic, we have allowed (and encouraged) thousands to assemble for political rallies. Hundreds have gathered for not-so-clandestine parties at hastily established nightclubs and over one million people crowded into airports and airplanes to travel over the Thanksgiving Day weekend.
Some deny that they are risking their lives to party or pray together. Others acknowledge the risk but have various excuses for taking the risk. A few claim they have been granted protection against evil humors after sacrificing a goat. Whatever the reason, the exemption from caution is invariably based on a sense of entitlement.
We Americans generally believe the Constitution entitles us to much more than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the rights to those three entities were stated in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. We act as if the Constitution entitles us to be stupid.
Should we pass regulations that disable a motor vehicle if the driver is intoxicated? Of course not. I need an eight-character code with at least one upper case letter and one nonalphanumeric character to get into my mail, but to start a five-ton vehicle that could kill me or a dozen bystanders if I am drunk, I need only press one button. Should we limit access to automatic weapons that can fire dozens of bullets in the blink of an eye? Of course not. Some people say they need a hundred rounds to bring down a deer, and we do not want to anger them.
As so the majority on a panel of nine allegedly intelligent adults has decided that we can assemble hundreds of people without regard to the risk involved. And what is the purpose of this assembly? Prayer, you say. Really? I appreciate the very human need for companionship, but can’t we put that aside for a few months so that hospitals are not overwhelmed by the devout? Was I misinformed when I was taught that you can pray on your own without the benefit of an infected throng surrounding you?
The greater irony in this situation is that the government is expected to manage the illness arising out of these super-spreader events but is deprived of the power to limit the spread of the illness. The cost to society of Covid-19 has been enormous, and the long-term costs will be even greater. The “news” celebrated the release of a Covid-19 infected patient after six months of hospitalization. For most of that time, he was in an intensive care unit. At the time he was discharged, he could barely walk and still needed oxygen. The cost of his hospitalization was millions of dollars, and that was for care at a community hospital.
When Mr. Trump had trouble breathing, he was treated at the White House, flown to and from Walter Reed Hospital by helicopter, had a team of at least eight doctors administering largely unavailable medications, and received daily follow-up treatments at the White House for an unspecified amount of time. He never adhered to CDC guidelines and consequently acquired the virus along with other White House staffers who followed his lead. The cost of care to this executive group, none of whom would have been at substantial risk if they had followed CDC guidelines, surely exceeded a million dollars.
Unfortunately, the cost of this pandemic is not limited to hospital and funeral expenses. In addition to lost wages and productivity, there is the future cost of rehabilitation and disability payments. Our neighbor who spent six months in the hospital will be on permanent disability payments for the rest of his life, and there are hundreds of thousands just like him already. You need not ask who is covering the cost of this disease. Unless you have the tax shelters available to many of our legislators and their friends, you are.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.