Column: With All Due Respect

A member of Congress from Arkansas acknowledged last week that vaccines and mask-wearing were good ideas. As the delta variant of Covid-19 filled hospitals across his state and his constituents noticed that their neighbors were filling those hospitals, and the morgues therein, this representative of the people and for the people boldly stepped forward to declare that vaccines and masks were a good idea.

It took him more than a year to make this absurdly self-evident pronouncement, but even then he felt obliged to undermine this insight. Even as he tried to establish that he had stayed awake for his third-grade biology lesson, he stepped back from the 20th century and added that we needed “to respect” the choices being made by our fellow citizens.

Although legislators in Arkansas recently passed a bill outlawing abortion even in cases of rape or incest, I doubt that our esteemed colleague was making reference to denying a woman the choice to terminate a pregnancy when her rapist father chose to omit birth control from his tool kit. No, this public servant was referencing the right of people in his state to reject vaccination and to refuse to wear masks. He said we need to respect their decision even when it extends to insisting that their children not be obliged to wear masks in public schools. I thought I must have misheard what he said and that he actually used a word like consider, understand, or even tolerate, but then he said it again, “Respect.”

Should we “respect” the choice of the woman who drives 100 miles/hour in a school zone? Should we “respect” the choice of the HIV-infected man who insists that he has a Constitutional right to have unprotected sex with whomever he chooses? I have read the U.S. Constitution several times, and I assure you there are no articles, sections or amendments barring these and thousands of other activities no rational American would consider acceptable. Why is it that so many of our fellow citizens insist that they have the “right” to expose us and our children and our parents to a potentially deadly virus?

The early argument that the risk to the general population was small crumbled long before the U.S. death count passed 600,000 and the hospitalizations due to Covid raced into the millions. The argument that the vaccines were dangerous or ineffective or both was disproven within a month of their introduction. That the vaccines were being used to implant microchips or to magnetize people or to sterilize men were novel ideas worthy of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” but were certainly not worthy of discussion by adults.

Some people still insist that they simply cannot trust the government, but of what government do they speak? The prior administration boasted that it would develop a vaccine in record time, and when foreign companies not supported or included in “Operation Warp Speed” produced a safe and effective vaccine, that administration took credit for the Europeans’ remarkable accomplishment.

When Joseph Biden was elected president, his administration insisted that the vaccines tentatively approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the prior administration were safe and effective. If you insist on not trusting whatever government is responsible for the health and welfare of America’s citizens, you should at least invest your time in determining what government actions pose a real risk to you and your loved ones.  The currently available vaccines do not pose a danger; wearing a 6” x 4” piece of cloth over your mouth and nostrils does not interfere with your ability to yell obscenities at neighbors who disagree with you; and maintaining a safe distance from strangers has been a good idea since the first virus infected the first man (or woman).

Why is it that a population that bridles at being told how to survive a catastrophe is so complacent when it is told it must send its children to die in military adventures all over the world?  After 10 years of war in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of America’s children drafted into an effort that left tens of thousands of Americans dead and hundreds of thousands physically or mentally crippled, we gained nothing, but questioning government policy was considered unpatriotic. 

After 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, we shall soon stop shipping our dead home for burial and shall leave thousands of friends behind to be murdered by the Taliban, but this horrific misadventure is dismissed as a failed attempt at nation building. These sacrifices we accept without recriminations or hesitation, but let a state governor insist that we wear a cloth mask to a Lakers’ basketball game and he or she will get death threats. Let an employer demand that all employees get vaccinated before returning to work, and there will be bomb threats. Have we lost our minds? Is the virus causing insanity, as well as lung failure?

Forgive me for not “respecting” the choices made by those who choose to put my family at risk from a preventable disease. I shall save my respect for the Americans who are willing to suffer a temporary inconvenience so that my offspring may live long and prosper. I shall vote for the politicians who have the audacity to promote agendas that safeguard American lives, rather than for those who are too timid to risk offending even one voter. We have the right, indeed the obligation, to protect ourselves, our relatives, our neighbors, and even the people with whom we disagree from choices that deprive us all of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We gain nothing and safeguard nothing by respecting the inclinations of some of our fellow citizens to simply ignore the risks posed by this plague. It is possible that Covid variants may someday simply disappear. The prior administration speculated that this might occur by “April” 2020 and did little to plan for problems persisting beyond that hypothetical expiration date. The governors of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and other states insist on getting “back to normal” now, even though “normal” is a distant memory that each day seems more like a fantasy than a goal.

Public health measures are necessarily intrusive, and that is because they are designed to minimize the risk of horrors like the bubonic plague, polio, smallpox, whooping cough, etc.  They may temporarily suspend individual “rights” to assure that there are people left in our communities and on our planet who can exercise individual rights. Simply put, no person deserves respect for choices that kill other people.

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.

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