Viewpoint: COVID commons

By Todd R. Nelson

During testimony last week before Congress on the vaccination response to the COVID-19 virus, the “heated exchange” between Dr. Fauci and Rep. Jordan of Ohio revealed a well-worn, familiar false dichotomy running rampant in our society: rights versus responsibilities.

Dr. Fauci was attempting to define the moment when we might expect the pandemic to abate; Rep. Jordan wanted a precise definition of “when.”

“What has to happen before Americans get more freedoms?” Jordan challenged. Rights.

“My message is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can, to get the level of infections in this country so low that it is no longer a threat. That is when.” Responsibilities.

“What determines ‘when?’ What measure? What outcome do we have to reach before Americans get their liberty and freedoms back?”

One man’s liberty and freedom is another man’s public health response to, as Dr. Fauci said, “keep people from dying and going to the hospital.”

“You don’t think Americans’ liberties have been threatened in the last year?” retorted Jordan. “Their liberties have been assaulted!”

While the moment seemed polished for the conflict algorithms of the internet and prime time Fox television shows, there is an element of Rep. Jordan’s belligerent, grandstanding questioning of Dr. Fauci that seems like the crux of an American dilemma. Suspend the rhetoric and consider the values exposed in the conflict — regardless of the speaker.

Fauci and Jordan’s exchange shouldn’t have been an argument. It’s actually an ethical dilemma: that is, a choice between two rights. That’s Rushworth Kidder’s* definition. The scientific facts of epidemiology represented by Fauci are asymmetrically pitted against the civil liberties cited by Jordan. Both sets of facts are right. However, they are being placed in an unresolvable conflict. One is the world of the laws and theories of cell biology; the other is the world of civil rights laws. They exist presently in a political supercollider.

Can they be reconciled?

It’s not a new conflict. American history is fraught with battles between our democratic aspirations and societal exigencies; ancient grudges, and tribal plagues of all sorts. There are probably 10 different conflicts extant with similar juxtapositions of these two rights — like a right to own guns versus a right to not be a victim of gun violence, another public health emergency. Perhaps it’s why we so often hear the phrase “the American experiment.” Results are always pending. A viral plague is not a new hypothesis, though its medical treatment might be. Its collision with our ideals tests our resolve to be a civil society.

I have in mind a different fulcrum for this discussion. It won’t provide either “side” a cudgel for use on the opposition, nor satisfying rhetorical grandstanding. It involves reason.

If we agree that science is the best lens for understanding the behavior of a virus and how to suppress it, then our legal norms could be challenged. If we hold that our civil rights are determined by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights — they are — and that they can be used to berate science, then the social good is in jeopardy. The crisis continues.

The Constitution has not been replaced, but it must accommodate a short-term public health response. Nor can 530,000 dead Americans killed by the pandemic be replaced. Need we choose one over the other? Both are right, hence the dilemma.

I suggest that if we weaponize both of these rights, we abandon our sense of the commons — that which we share, no matter what. The commons is the rights, resources and responsibilities we inherit, inhabit and defend. We are de facto stewards of the commons, the community we inhabit. And the commons is always a conversation, at heart — a dialogue between science and politics, individuals and groups, civility and lawlessness. My rights and our responsibilities to one another — our most precious freedoms and our most precious rights, resources and responsibilities.

If we are to regain unity, we need an impetus. For me it is unifying around a sense of the “having in common,” as Wendell Berry puts it.

At long last, I would ask, where is our compassion? Ultimately, cell biology will not make us better neighbors to one another, though it invites us to show compassion and care when disease, hatred, suspicion or mendacity colonize our lives. We must see that rights require responsibilities, and responsibilities protect rights.

Perhaps we need a COVID-19 quilt to remind us of the faces and livelihoods of those we’ve lost, like the AIDS Quilt Project in the 1980s? Dr. Fauci was there, too, and vilified for his work on that far deadlier plague — as he has been now. And yet he is the model of the public servant and the public health dialogue that arbitrates our present needs: science in conversation with the commons for the benefit of civil rights, health and the responsibility that, if enacted by us all, will unify instead of divide on the pathway back to health, safety and freedom. Together.


Todd R Nelson is a teacher and writer.


*Kidder founded the Institute for Global Ethics, formerly in Camden.

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