Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

Rights, public safety, and common sense

Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson

October 12, 2021

The atmosphere in our country has been growing more and more divisive over the past several years. This divisiveness is currently being played out in courtrooms and public spaces, over being vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine. On September 9, President Biden issued a vaccination requirement to all private employers with more than 100 employees, along with the federal workforce (including contractors, employees of healthcare centers that accept federal Medicare and Medicaid payments, and employees of federal education programs including Head Start). This announcement struck a chord with many Americans. Protests concerning masking in schools were already heated. However, after the vaccine mandate was announced, protest increased as legal threats from states as well as individuals were issued. In addition, healthcare workers across the country threatened to quit.

Many assert that we live in a democracy with rights. This has led to the position that the President’s vaccine requirement infringes on our rights. After the President’s announcement on September 9, protests erupted around the country. These protests followed in the wake of earlier protests against individual employers’ vaccine requirements. In June, over 150 employees at Houston Methodist Hospital were fired or resigned after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the hospital’s COVID vaccine requirement. In Charlotte, North Carolina, hundreds protested in August against one of the area’s major employers, Atrium Health. This medical center employs over 70,000 workers and announced its vaccine mandate for staff in July. While these are only a few instances, they represent the emotional tension between being vaccinated or not, wearing a mask or not, and between our government and its citizens.

The mandate comes on the heels of the President urging Americans to be vaccinated. The Economist reported on September 18 that “There are clear reasons for taking this unusual step. Only 54% of Americans are fully vaccinated, meaning the nation is lagging behind its peers. In Canada and Britain, 69% and 65% of people are fully vaccinated respectively, according to Oxford University. Japan initially experienced a disastrous rollout. One month before the start of the Olympics in July, only 18% of Japan’s population received the jab. But Japan has now surpassed America in first doses administered (65% compared with 63%). With 663,325 deaths from covid-19, America will shortly exceed the number of fatalities resulting from the 1918 influenza pandemic (675,000).”

To some it appears that the numbers indicate what needs to be done. However, while we live in a democracy where we are entitled to exercise our “unalienable rights,” public safety has not registered on the minds, hearts, and souls of some Americans. This current generation has not experienced a public safety concern of this magnitude. Perhaps this fact alone desensitizes the advocates of “rights” to the clear and convincing evidence that this pandemic is a public safety issue. This pandemic is a public safety concern not restricted by economics, education, ethnicity, or environments, as it impacts everyone, everywhere.

While we live in a democracy where we are entitled to exercise our “unalienable rights,” public safety has not registered on the hearts, minds, and souls of some Americans. While our rights are indeed important, we need to be alive and healthy to fight for these rights. May we find it in our collective hearts to truly be our brother’s keeper in our efforts to keep one another safe. May we look beyond the narrow view of “rights” to see the broad perspective of public safety.

Looking at how we have dealt with public safety challenges in our history can be useful to advocates of “rights.” In this country’s history, public safety challenges are not an anomaly. A smallpox outbreak virtually crippled the burgeoning city of Boston, prior to the Revolutionary War. It disproportionally impacted Native Americans, and Anglo-Americans were not immune from the epidemic. Smallpox was a public health dilemma. The epidemic was controlled by inoculation, the precursor to vaccination. Smallpox has since been eradicated because of vaccines. The CDC asserts that vaccines are “one of the greatest success stories in public health.” Public safety has at its core, the well-being of the public in general. However, when a segment of the population continues to resist the call for public safety, it slows the progress that can be made to protect as many citizens as possible.

While advocates of “rights” protest the validity of being vaccinated, many have already been vaccinated against measles, mumps, and rubella with the MMR vaccine. Common sense has to prevail if we are to move forward in eradicating this pandemic. While our “rights” are indeed important, we need to be alive to fight for these rights. We need to be healthy to fight for these rights. The right not to get vaccinated pales in comparison to voting rights, human rights, the right to have access to healthy food and clean water. These are rights that demand our attention.

As a chaplain, I have had the privilege of walking with people who have been affected by COVID-19. A patient prior to getting sick indicated that they were adamantly against the vaccine. This patient had no rationalization against getting the vaccine other than their church group opposed it. However, after having spent days in the ICU on a ventilation system, partially unconscious, after recovering this person asked how soon they could get the vaccine, because they did not want to ever experience that type of sickness again. While this may not be the case for unvaccinated persons, it is the sentiment of many who recover. They have a new perspective on the vaccination. It is my prayer that as we look back on this time in history, it will reveal that common sense not rights prevailed.

May we find it in our collective hearts to truly be our brother’s keeper in our efforts to keep one another safe. As I view the travesty that is unfolding, I am keenly aware of how practical the teachings of Christ are. When we apply the teaching of “loving thy neighbor as thyself” it expands to being mindful of how our actions directly and indirectly impact others. When we view the vaccine through a myopic lens, it reveals that we are only concerned about ourselves. This is not the perspective that will help us prevail. To do so will involve sacrificing selfish views for the good of the whole. May we look beyond the narrow view of “rights” to see the broad perspective of public safety.

Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, New York.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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