As pandemic drags on, we need a new social contract | Columns

Bizar Male

We need a new social contract for COVID-19. Our collective behavior will be the only way to finally beat this virus and its variants. 

A social contract is an agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection which means putting aside our own selfish desires for the greater good.

From Thomas Hobbes to John Locke to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract idea has been around a long time.

Most social contract theories examine societies without any government, “a state of nature” where our actions are bound only by our personal power and conscience. 

I was reminded of this when we witnessed seditionists violate our social contract by storming the Capitol, The People’s House, thus violating all of our rights.

Thomas Hobbes famously said that in a “state of nature,” life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In the absence of government, everyone would have unlimited freedoms, including the “right to all things” and thus the freedom to steal, rape and murder; there would be an endless “war of all against all.” 

Hobbes’ solution to avoid this endless war, free men contract with each other to establish a government in which they all gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an autocratic ruler. 

John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that we have good government in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others, while giving up some freedoms.

Locke believed that our rights were inalienable and God-given, while Rousseau believed that democracy (self-rule) was the best way to ensure welfare while maintaining individual freedom under the rule of law. Their social contract theory is found throughout our Declaration of Independence.

Today we find ourselves divided about vaccinations and face masks versus our freedoms.

“People are saying face mask requirements (violate) our personal freedoms.  Do they have the law on their side?” asked Kim Fields, an anti-masker from Idaho.

“It’s not just a question of whether it’s a violation of personal freedoms, it’s a question of whether it’s a justified surrender of personal freedoms,” said Shaakirrah Sanders, professor of law, University of Idaho.

“We have seen throughout history that governments have declared emergency powers in times of crisis,” Sanders said.

The federal and state Constitutions grant a governor this authority for the greater good of society’s health and public safety.

Face mask mandates would likely be considered justified if they won court challenges.

The authority given to states and cities under that social contract theory in our federal and state constitutions, and the fact that we have a deadly pandemic going on, would show there’s a compelling government interest for public safety to require face masks be worn in indoor public spaces.  

And medical research has shown us that wearing a face mask is effective against the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. So that would essentially be the winning argument in court.

That does not mean the government can tell you to wear a face mask in your home or car or private business.

“But out in public, on streets in public places, then yes, because of the link between the face mask and combating the disease,” Professor Sanders says, “ the court could say, for purposes of COVID-19, the government can require us to wear a face mask in public.”

Eight state governments have required people who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to continue to wear “face coverings” in most indoor public settings. But many states have dropped the mask requirement for fully vaccinated people.

Kentucky’s general mask mandate ended June 11. But masks are still required in certain settings, including  child-care centers, medical care facilities, prisons, homeless shelters and on public transit.

Sadly, those who have refused to wear face masks or get vaccinated have violated our original social contract. We see that 99% of COVID-19 variant deaths now are people who were not vaccinated. 

Our new social contract should require our government to act for the safety of those same people.

Finally, trust matters – in the scientific information and medical advice the government provides, and leaders to inspire us to  trust each other.

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