Acton Institute Powerblog

It’s time individuals, not the government, make choices about COVID-19 risk

(Image credit: Associated Press)

After almost two years, several vaccines, and a variant that is far less deadly, it’s now up to individuals and families to decide how best to cope with the virus, not government.

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“The central question we face today is: Who decides?”

That’s the opening line of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurrence to the Supreme Court’s Jan. 13 opinion striking down the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate that was to be enacted through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Justice Gorsuch goes on to ask whether “an administrative agency in Washington” can mandate vaccination against COVID-19 or whether that is the job of state and local governments and the U.S. Congress in its capacity as a representative of the will of the people.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the government was at the zenith of its powers, not only at the federal level but also at the state and local level. Actions that many, if not most, Americans would view as intemperate and unnecessary today seemed more reasonable, or at least understandable, when we knew far less about this novel coronavirus.

But as time has progressed, and our understanding of the nature of this virus and whom it effects most has broadened, the power of federal, state, and local governments has diminished. Sometimes this has been compelled by the courts, as was the case in Supreme Court decisions in February and April 2021 that blocked some state restrictions on in-person religious services. Other times it has come in the form of elected leaders refusing to repeat previous measures ostensibly aimed at controlling the spread of the virus, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer’s refusals to reimplement statewide mask mandates and restrictions on businesses like we saw early in the pandemic.

While Gov. Whitmer’s stated explanation for not repeating these drastic measures was, basically, “we have vaccines that work,” we can also reasonably assume that Whitmer senses the political fallout of repeating unpopular lockdown policies that now would pose significant challenges to her obtaining what all politicians desire: reelection.

This devolution of decision-making power from federal to state authorities, and from states to local authorities, is well and good. It’s consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that social and political problems should be addressed at the lowest level possible, consistent with their effective resolution.

But it doesn’t go far enough.

The emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has greatly altered how we should view that proper level, consistent with subsidiarity, where the problem-solving should happen. While Omicron has produced huge spikes in positive cases of COVID-19, it has not been accompanied by comparable increases in deaths. Hospitalizations and deaths remain primarily among the unvaccinated. And in many cases, stories of hospitals being overwhelmed by COVID cases have as much, if not more, to do with staffing shortages and less to do with the raw numbers of people being admitted.

None of this is to say that COVID-19 isn’t still dangerous and potentially deadly. But many things in life are dangerous and potentially deadly. Death from disease has been with us as long as humans have walked this earth. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

The question we should be asking ourselves is, given what we now know about COVID-19, what is the lowest appropriate level of decision-making at which we should be addressing the risks of this virus?

The answer is, at the individual and family level.

Long before COVID-19 swept the globe, we appropriately handled sickness on a personal and family level. If you came down with the flu, you didn’t go to work. If your children were sick, you didn’t send them to school.

It was undeniably true that some people would be cavalier about their own illness and come into work anyway, be that out of a disregard for others or out of a misplaced sense of duty to “power through” and work anyway. If there’s one long-lasting change to our personal behavior that should come from the experience of the past two years, it should be correcting this. If you’re ill, there’s no need to unnecessarily expose others, especially given the new opportunities for remote work that have emerged during the pandemic. Prudence should dictate that, when in doubt, just take a sick day.

But there is no state policy that will ever effectively, completely control for the carelessness of others. We should stop pretending there is.

The clearest articulation of how to handle COVID-19 moving forward came from Allison Morgan, the founder and head of The Classical Christian Conservatory of Alexandria, Va., in an email to parents that recently circulated on Twitter. That school’s policy now is that “cases of COVID will be treated as equivalent to all other illnesses for the purpose of school attendance.”

A crisis that once could justify drastic measures and the micromanagement of personal behavior no longer does. It’s past time for political leaders to return the decision-making and problem-solving power over issues of personal illness to where they were previously vested: the individual and the family.

As Morgan put it to parents of her school, “all that remains is for us to choose to move forward.”

It’s a choice we should all make.

This article originally appeared in The Detroit News on Jan. 26, 2022

Eric Kohn

Eric Kohn is director of marketing and communications at the Acton Institute. In that role, he works to bring Acton's vision of a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles to a wider audience.