Steve Roberts: Become a caring community

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 2, 2021

By Steve Roberts

While warming up for a recent tennis match, a pal said, “We’ve all been vaccinated. Can’t we ditch our masks?”

No, we quickly agreed. The rules still applied. Masks stayed on.

Like most people, I hate wearing a mask, especially while playing tennis. But we had no real choice. We were not just protecting ourselves, but safeguarding others: the players on the next court, the purple-haired kid checking us in, the security guard at the school where our group has gathered for more than 20 years.

Here’s where dissidents who oppose reasonable precautions against the coronavirus profoundly misunderstand the concept of individual rights. They claim that the American tradition of personal freedom means everyone gets to do whatever they want to do. Remember President Trump tweeting calls to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia last April? He was referring to the supposed tyranny of restrictions imposed by Democratic governors, who were struggling to contain the virus.

It’s certainly true that “rugged individualism” is a central part of America’s character and tradition. So is libertarianism that resents intrusive government. But all rights have limits. And those limits are reached when your behavior impinges and impacts the rights of others.

You can drive a car, but you can’t speed at 100 mph. If you ram into a telephone pole, sure, that’s your business. But if you hit someone else, that’s our business — as a community, as a nation, as a humane society.  It’s exactly the same with wearing a mask, keeping your distance and getting vaccinated. COVID-19 is a highly insidious and infectious disease. If you don’t take personal responsibility for how your behavior affects others, it’s the equivalent of driving home after drinking six beers. You could maim or even kill someone else.

The question of how we treat each other is, unfortunately, back on the table because experts are warning about an upsurge in infections. CNN reports: “At least 27 states have averaged at least 10% more cases each day this past week compared to the previous week, according to Johns Hopkins University.”

This trendline caused Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to tearfully depart from her script and tell a news briefing: “Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen … I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”

President Biden pleaded with Americans to avoid “reckless behavior” and added, “The war against COVID-19 is far from won. This is deadly serious.” Biden criticized governors, like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who have eliminated mask mandates and other safety measures. Biden predicted, “If we let our guard down now, we can see the virus getting worse, not better. Please, this is not politics.”

But of course, this is politics. Biden’s cautious policies are popular — 72% support his approach to the pandemic, according to the latest ABC/Ipsos poll. But that leaves 28% who resist his entreaties. And a recent NPR/Marist survey found that 49% of Republican men refuse to get vaccinated. When GOP pollster Frank Luntz convened a focus group to explain this reluctance, one participant told him, “Don’t hold my freedom hostage.”

This is precisely the sort of misguided thinking behind Trump’s deeply damaging failure to confront the reality of the virus. Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the former president’s key advisers on the pandemic, told CNN that when she tried to outline the seriousness of the threat, “I got called by the president. It was very uncomfortable, very direct and very difficult to hear.”

The result, she said, was a public health catastrophe: “There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

Science is not perfect. Experts can make mistakes and disagree with each other. And other values have to be balanced against purely medical advice. When kids stay home from school, their educational progress suffers — and so does their parents’ mental health. When businesses close and jobs disappear, workers lose status and self-esteem along with their paychecks.

But science gives us a starting point — a common set of facts on which to base rational decisions. Science also provides a foundation for moral behavior. It tells us what works, how we can protect each other and become a caring community.

Jesus taught, in the book of Matthew, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The way to do that is to get the shot and wear the mask.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at