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COVID-19 and Civil Liberties

By: Ethan Mathieu

As COVID-19 descends upon our way of life, some Americans have questioned whether or not the public health requirements for disease eradication are conflicting with the statutes of the Constitution. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has notably received more than her fair share of flak from a segment of her constituents regarding how her stay-at-home order has interfered with their daily routine. Protests racked the state capitol earlier in May calling for her Recall. Others compared her executive orders designed to curb the pandemic’s spread to the Bible’s “Judgement Day”. What these protesters fail to understand is that the fight against COVID-19 is much like a war. President Trump himself, despite his slow and lax response to the crisis, described it as such. To win a war, the entire population must be ready to make sacrifices.

Throughout every war in American history, sacrifices were made both on the battlefield and the domestic front. In the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which allows anyone in government detention to question the court as to why they have been detained. During World War I, Congress levied and enforced Sedition and Espionage Acts, which together essentially removed the right to free speech. In World War II, the American population was put in an unprecedented state of “total war”. All citizens were expected to contribute to the war effort. For example, women answered the call of “Rosie the Riveter” and entered the workforce in record numbers to replace the men going to fight overseas. Food was rationed nationwide. The fact of the matter is that in times of crisis, it begins to become a bit uncomfortable for everyone. Individual people need to step up to the plate everyday and do what is best for the greater good.  After 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to ensure that American air travel was secure. This meant longer waits at check-in and pat-down security inspections. These changes have been largely accepted by the population because we have viewed it as necessary despite the discomfort they cause. Our response to COVID-19 should be no different.


COVID-19 is an invisible enemy. Our ships were not sunk by a submarine. Our air bases were not ambushed by enemy fighter pilots. Our southern border was not threatened by a secret plot. But there is still an enemy out there killing thousands and we must face it together as if we are under attack. Staying at home all day, every day, leaving only for essentials like groceries or supplies is unpleasant. You may feel like going to the beach or starting a block party to escape the confines of your own home. But that is part of the sacrifice we must endure during this time of war. The majority of us are not even on the front line of this conflict. The factory workers of World War II did not experience the same level of sacrifice as those landing on Omaha beach. Similarly, few of us are in a COVID-19 ward for hours on end with protective gear recycled from last week. But we all still have a role to play, a cog to turn, a part to engage in if we want victory.

The effects of the COVID-19 response, however, must not be trivialized. While businesses should remain closed until each state flattens its curve, those businesses should be supported. During war, the government normally recognizes the sacrifices individuals have to make and compensates them accordingly. Throughout World War II, the government subsidized wages using federal contracts. Washington is supposed to understand that in order to sustain the new form of life wartime ushers in, individuals and employers need aid. That is why the federal government should step in with fair subsidies where it is necessary so that the economy can weather this storm. It is also possible to exist outside your home recreationally while still being safe, so long as it adheres to the standards of the CDC of wearing a mask and standing 6-feet apart.

There is a line the government should never overstep in the name of wartime necessity. Curtailing free speech during World War I, while politically expedient, was undoubtedly unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent. However, forcing citizens to stay home, provided they have what they need, does not meet that threshold. Closing places of gathering in order to combat a disease that can spread simply through shared space, from as far as 9 feet from the source, is not a threat to your constitutional rights. It is a necessity in order to keep the population safe from a disease that has already killed 100,000 Americans in just 3 months. 

Where my civil liberties begin, yours end. Those against the quarantine often cite the fact that they are entitled to do what they want with their life in the pursuit of happiness. That grounded firmly in the American identity is the right to self determination. What that outlook ignores is that the decision to ignore our current reality impacts everyone else’s liberties in the process. I have the right to my life as much as you have your right to yours. One’s defiance of the CDC guidelines actively puts the lives of others at risk, thus eliminating their right to life. Is your aspiration to create a false reality more important than your neighbor’s health?  

The fact of the matter is that if we get a second wave of this virus, which we very well may if we re-open too quickly, it will be devastating. We will be back to before square one if that occurs. In short, while it may feel comfortable to reject the quarantine, understand that more Americans will die if we are not careful with the delicate decision of returning to normalcy. As a society, we must weigh life against points on the DOW. America has overcome crises just like COVID-19 before and it can and will endure. It’s just a matter of how quickly we want that to happen. 

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