Tag Archives: Covid-19

Pandemic Influences on Higher Education Choices

My good friend and professional colleague, Kevin Mitchell, founded the Business Travel Coalition (http://www.businesstravelcoalition.com/) many years ago and publishes a subscription based daily newsletter of important reporting on the entire travel business. The newsletter, now called tVillage Intelligencer, is seen by thousands around the world.

Kevin is prolific writer and thinker and has published a thoughtful and, as always, well-crafted essay addressing the implications of the pandemic on the decisions being faced by many families and young people whether to go to college or pursue other options. I responded to the piece and, with Kevin’s permission, am republishing the exchange here (without the graphics; his original essay can be seen at  https://publicate.it/p/KqXmdg152169):

A Pandemic Consequence: The Questioning of Higher Education

No idle Memorial Day weekend exercise for some

This weekend as Americans think about and honor the more than one million patriots who gave their precious lives for the promise of America, there is even more on the minds of parents. The economic fallout of the COVID-19 (C19) pandemic is causing parents of children already in college, about to enter college or considering applying to think long and hard if such an expensive commitment is the best and only path for their children.Indeed, there is a counter-push against the American must-go-to-college mantra that is increasing in strength. I believe that like previous pandemics, C19 will accelerate many existing or latent economic and societal trends. The crisis is likely, for example, to push a lot of parents and their children to rethink the cost/benefit of a traditional college education compared with alternative paths.

Sadly, a lot of kids today go to college because all their friends do without considering whether that’s what they really want to do and if it is worth 4 years of their lives and a lot of expense, including lost wages, versus other options. For sure, some have a dream of becoming an architect, physicist, astronaut or the next Olympic track star. However, that’s different in that those young adults have strong personal life-purposes and visions. Still, for others, they want to explore new intellectual, social and cultural experiences that are important and valuable to them to better understand.

Higher education has been justifiably pedestalled as a highly valued tradition in Western and non-Western cultures for its numerous and far reaching societal benefits. My grandmother and grandfather, for example, immigrated from Ireland to America in the early 20th century and originally took jobs in Boston as a maid and policeman respectively. They were determined to put my mother and her sister through college to improve their lives. My mother graduated from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1940 when very few women of her parents’ means were able to attend college. Both went onto long careers in education touching many thousands of lives and living the American Dream. So, I am all-in for this important tradition of higher education and its linkage to upward social mobility.

Today, however, especially against the backdrop of a C19 economic crisis, where close to 40 million Americans have so far lost jobs in a highly unsure future-looking economy, many are beginning to challenge the assumption that college is the only path on which to responsibly put their children to achieve the American Dream and a productive, fulfilling life.

It’s not just the high cost. Also at issue is the perceived uneven quality of the education itself, the totality of today’s campus experience and the enabling public policy. Many point to the financing model of higher education as a root cause of the $1.6 trillion college tuition debt-bubble that is more likely to burst during this C19 economic malaise as parents making loan payments are increasingly under financial duress. And let’s not forget the superrich buying their kids’ entry to prestigious universities; not a good look for American society or higher education! In combination, these developments reinforce some parents’ weariness and instincts that it’s time for a revalidation of assumptions. This should worry U.S. institutions of higher learning that have already seen student enrollments decline every year since 2011.

It’s fair to ask if recent graduates are better prepared to work hard, take risks and achieve success than if they had chosen to take a different path, or waited for a while until they discovered their keen interests or passions to make the best possible decisions for themselves.

Perhaps with some irony, a pandemic is once again poised to insert itself in the trajectory of higher education – which has been forever short on innovation and long on cost increases. University education was democratized for the masses as an eventual consequence of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century wherein prior to that time those of us with European roots had ancestors some 75% of whom were serfs largely confined to their lords’ fields and heavy-handed restrictions. However, while there is something very important about the pursuit of university study that should be understood, valued and safeguarded, there is reason for healthy skepticism as well.

I graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980 with a 4-year tuition debt of a mere $10K, which I easily paid off in 3 years. Was it worth it for me? Yes, because I learned that jobs in a big company without a degree were virtually non-existent. In my case, a bachelor’s degree in international relations apparently provided an employer with an indication of some competence and/or other positive attributes. I was offered a job by CIGNA Corp.

Beyond getting my foot in the door at CIGNA, did I secure new skills and knowledge from investing four years of my life and working full-time, year-round? Yes. Was it an even-trade for the benefit? Leaving aside that it represented the key to the CIGNA door, my answer is a resounding no. Very little of what I learned in class helped me in my career and I did not benefit from the interactions of living on campus with fellow students because I lived at home.

The university model should be fundamentally reformed. However, it should also be cherished and safeguarded while culturally celebrating the upward-mobility successes available to those in America who want to strike out with personal visions and work hard and achieve their goals without four-year college degrees. Options include self-education, job training, trade schools and technical certifications, as an example, for aircraft mechanics.

The classic American expression “self-made man” was coined in 1832 by U.S. Senator Henry Clay to acknowledge the inner promise and strength of individuals who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are enough examples in America to fill a university library.

Born poor in Kentucky, and with a total of one year of school, self-educated Abraham Lincoln led our country through its most profound crisis ever during the American Civil War abolishing slavery and fundamentally modernizing the American economy. Lincoln pursued a path that diverged from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, Haverford, Fordham and other institutions accepting students at that time.

Lincoln, instead, chose a version of distance-learning enabled by borrowed books to become a self-taught lawyer at age 25, state legislator, Member of Congress and President of the United States. With some irony, in 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act enabling the creation of soon-to-become prestigious universities such as Cornell, MIT, Penn State, Rutgers, Ohio State, Texas A&M, West Virginia and the University of California.

Not such a bad path, role model or agent of change! 

Perhaps it would be counter-intuitive, but fruitful, for colleges and universities to celebrate and embrace alternative paths to four-year degrees and lifelong learning and reinvent themselves by taking a leadership role in a comprehensive national initiative to prepare future generations of Americans to be productive, highly successful citizens. Lincoln, the epitome of the self-made man, was able to appreciate accomplishment without the benefit of a college degree and, at the same time, to champion the strategic importance to our nation of expanding institutions of higher learning.As pandemics are wont to do, I am sure many Americans this Memorial Day weekend are using the reflective time to think over many long-held assumptions about important components of their lives from college, to work-life balances, to placing their parents in nursing homes.

My response:

I read with great interest your essay on the questioning of higher education as a partial result of the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been mulling this subject for a long time, inspired by some much earlier published pieces in which (1) a successful entrepreneur (one of your “self-made men”) argued that college was useless, that his son would have to make his way as an innovator, just like dad, or fail, without wasting time in college; (2) arguments were presented that the cost-benefit analysis, comparing future earning differentials for college graduates v. non-college people showed conclusively that, as you have suggested, it’s “not worth it.”

Having been blessed with a scholarship-financed liberal arts education at an Ivy League college, also with associated debt to repay, I must dissent.

You are no doubt correct that the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic will force many to rethink their ability to pay for a college education. This is but one of the many tragedies to emerge from the pandemic. But that, I suggest, is a separate issue from whether a college education is so valuable that, if the opportunity exists, it should almost always be chosen. The value is properly determined not simply by traditional “cost benefit” analysis but by a broader range of intangible considerations.

For example, an on-campus college education presents the opportunity for young people to engage with a range of intellectual and other mind-expanding stimuli in an atmosphere that, if properly run, expands understanding of how the world works. It forces students to confront different points of view and to think more deeply about hard questions about which they previously just assumed the answers. They have the opportunity to confront and understand complexity. Ultimately, they learn to think, often about subjects they had no original interest in and would never have been touched by in the absence of the “cloistered” college experience.

Viewed this way, college is not just a trade school, a place where you learn how to do something. It’s a place where you come to understand what you can and should be doing and then you move on to more advanced studies or enter the world and take up the rest through direct experience.

I do not suggest, however, that college is right or necessary for everyone. But it is right for most young people who life paths are still being sorted at the time college is an option .It is not just the ticket to superior employment – it is the essential prerequisite to the fully examined life.

I believe we are seeing now in our society the consequences of having a large population of adults who did not have this experience. The polls refer to them as the “non-college educated white people.” They tend to support Donald Trump, to revere destructive rhetoric, support anti-immigrant and anti-diversity policies, to “hate” the “other,” defined as people not like them. Their thought processes embrace ideas like “fake news” and are unable to distinguish truth from ideology. They don’t think deeply about anything because they’ve never been required to do so. They see themselves as victims and engage in much magical thinking, including attraction to conspiracy theories.

Obviously, not all non-college educated people are like that but I believe the shockingly large segment of the American population that the above does describe is in significant part a function of the lack of higher education and the exposure to “other” ideas and “other” people that such education most often provides.

It would be ideal, of course, if the United States offered both paths, so that those people who only want to learn a trade and pursue the resulting life can do so. In the past the country did have trade schools but the shifting of manufacturing to foreign sources caused job opportunities in many trades to dry up, leading to the closure of many related educational opportunities. The demand now is for computer science and related skills and while there are schools devoted largely to teaching those things, the emerging students will likely lead more rewarding lives, all aspects considered, if they also have some learning experiences in literature, history and the like.

You and I are probably not as far apart as might appear with respect to the above. Where we more seriously diverge, I suspect, is regarding the notion of the “self-made man,” for which you cite Abraham Lincoln as a stellar example of what can happen to individuals with the “inner promise and strength … who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.” Lincoln certainly stands out in the pantheon of such people, but I suggest that the chances today of more “Lincolns,” or even more Steve Jobs emerging and doing great works, as opposed to simply making themselves rich with some new technology they imagined, is slimmer than ever.

That is not just a consequence of the greater complexity of today’s knowledge-demands; the system has been rigged to suppress many of the potential innovators. I wrote about this in my blog post entitled, The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures” https://bit.ly/2TGx172, the gist of which was expressed thus,

 As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every  day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost  contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become  great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those  people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from    America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

One of the most surprising aspects of that blog post, written in in early 2017, is that visitors to the blog to this day seek it out more than anything else I have written. From where I sit, there may still be some chances for so-called “self-made men” to emerge but the odds are heavily against them. And, I must say, that the term “self-made,” in my opinion, grossly understates the contribution that others made to all such people, including Abraham Lincoln properly understood.

In conclusion, having staked that position, I now declare that I agree strongly with you regarding the need for reform in our education system. Those reforms should certainly include opportunities for future “tradesmen” to learn and proceed with an honorable path through life. They should, I think, also provide for a viable economic path to and through higher education so that everyone who wants to study anything serious should be able to do so without assuming overwhelming debt that take decades to repay and have all manner of deleterious impacts on individuals, families and society at large. I readily confess I don’t know how to get to that idyllic state, but the price we pay as a society of failing at this may well be our undoing, not just as a nation-state but as a civilization.

COVID-19 & New American Mantra: I Only Care About Me

It was Memorial Day. What is that, exactly? It’s a day to remember and honor Americans who died while serving in the U.S. military, especially those who died in combat. Whether or not you approve or disapprove of a particular war, or indeed all wars, it is, in concept and intention, a somber occasion. It’s a time for reflection and showing respect.

The United States has adopted some strange ways of recognizing this occasion, although the phenomenon is not unique to Memorial Day. Most people get the day off from work. Some watch the televised memorials over the weekend; some watch the president and other dignitaries pay their respects officially by, for example, placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.

Many others see the day only as a holiday occasion and this year, in particular, there was greater emphasis on the “re-opening” of the country following the various lockdowns driven by the coronavirus epidemic. I have no idea what the ratio was of celebrants to serious observers, but if the scene on Alabama’s beaches is any guide, a very large number of Americans saw this day as simply an excuse to abandon caution and head out for a good time. Multiple videos showed massive crowding at swimming pools in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri and the Ace Speedway in North Carolina, among others. Masks and social distancing were largely absent. St. Louis County officials called the scenes an “international example of bad judgment.” https://wapo.st/3gqBjcD

To be clear, I don’t care much what any individual chooses to do regarding protecting himself or throwing caution to the winds in pursuit of belief that he has a constitutional right to do what he pleases. Freedom, American values and all of that, are what each individual decides they mean for herself.

However, the line is drawn when an individual’s choices infringe on the rights and values of others, including the right to be protected from dangerous behavior. This is why we have speed limits, stop signs, protection of minors from certain types of work and many other restrictions on what we might individually be inclined to do. This is not hard to understand. True, there are violations of the speed limit, seat belt laws and the others every day by someone somewhere, often many someones. According to Rhino Lawyers, on average the police issue 112,000 driving citations a day! https://bit.ly/3gndAKd Some of these are for inadvertent mistakes and many are for deliberate decisions to, for example, disobey speed limits. And, of course, most violators of the rules of the road are not brought to justice. Sometimes, these behaviors lead to tragedies, resulting in deaths, disabilities, lawsuits and so on.

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic with similar deadly consequences, so far, in the United States for 100,000 individuals (exactly 99,498 as I write) and roughly as many families. Globally, the deaths exceed 348,000 out of more than 5.5 million cases. It is highly likely that the reported numbers understate the actual case and death toll. https://bit.ly/2ZL3soy No end is in sight. There is no “remedy” or “cure” that can be administered reliably to the stricken. All ages and demographics are affected, some more than others, but no sector is immune. There is no vaccine and none in the offing any time soon. Many more will fall ill and many more will die before this is “over,” if it ever is. Like the flu, COVID-19 may be with us forever.

Returning then to individual behavior, I repeat that if an individual wants to risk his life on the chance that he won’t be infected, so be it. Do whatever you want with your own life, provided that doing so does not place others involuntarily at risk.

Consider these statements from people interviewed at a packed Alabama beach yesterday, where there was no active enforcement of the policy that groups should consist only of same-family members:

“I’m just here to have fun and meet everybody and be cool, you know.”

Recent college graduate: “I don’t want to die but if [death] is what God has in store for my life, that’s ok.”

“If we get it, we get it…. We’re just going to handle it as a family and just get over it because that’s what a family does.”

“People die from the flu also.”

“I get it, I get it. The survival rate is so high…. we’re all going to get sick from something eventually.”

“If he’s not wearing a mask, I’m not wearing a mask; if he’s not worried, I’m not worried,” young male referencing Donald Trump.

“When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.”

[https://cnn.it/3d4HG3c]

Such fatalism is fine for individuals who have no contact with other people but most of these people likely have plenty of social contacts. Their “decision” to risk sickness, permanent injury and even death at the hands of the coronavirus thus exposes many others to the same risk whether they want to take it or not.

This is a degree of selfishness, openly and proudly displayed, that should be of profound concern to everyone. These people are living by the “principle” that says, “I only care about me and no one else. My rights and privileges, my freedoms to do whatever I want are more important than the welfare of anyone else that I may come in contact with, including children, elderly people with compromised immune systems or co-morbidities. I am all that matters. Me, Me, Me.”

This comes not just from the very young or the older young restless/reckless who often think they are invulnerable and whose cerebral cortexes, science informs us, are not fully developed and often make bad decisions. People of all ages and with families were interviewed on the Alabama beach. These are our “fellow Americans,” for whose “freedoms,” many men and women gave their lives in foreign wars. I doubt that if we could ask the fallen warriors whether this is what they meant to sacrifice for, most all would say, “no, we did not act selflessly just so others could be so selfish and indifferent to the welfare of others.”

But this is the contemporary reality of life in the United States. It’s not happening in just one place and it’s not just the product of needing to re-open the economy. This is blatant selfish behavior. These people include some of the angry, usually white, people who have carried guns into some state capitols, without being challenged, to demand re-opening. Like the people at the beaches and pools this weekend, they refuse to wear masks or engage in social distancing to protect others. While shouting and waving flags and signs about their “rights,” these selfish people make clear that don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. Other people’s rights to be free of disease and to avoid contact with high-risk people and behaviors mean nothing to them.

Having witnessed the ravages of this disease up close and personal, my patience with these people has been consumed. The tank is empty. I am fearful of my reaction if I continue to encounter unmasked people on the streets of New York when we dare to venture out. They were everywhere this Memorial Day weekend when we walked for the first time in two months. The Governor of New York has observed that wearing a mask is simply the “right thing to do.” Still, many are unmoved. They just don’t care.

As tempting as it is to wish they all get infected, that would just expose even more people, including health care workers, to the consequences of their reckless and morally bankrupt insensitivity and that would be wrong. So, I try not to be vengeful. It is hard. This kind of indifference to the fate of other people seems un-American. It seems inhuman. No one can claim valid religious conviction to justify this, though many do so. There is no true religion anywhere that says, “do for yourself and to hell with everyone else.” That, however, is where we are.

 

 

New York As a Dead City

We have no balcony but many windows from which we can see south down Ninth Avenue into the 30s and east on West 58th to Columbus Circle and even parts of Central Park. In normal times West 58th would be teeming with foot traffic in both directions, much of it related to either Mt Sinai West Hospital that sits next to our apartment building and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (enrollment of more than 13,000 undergraduates). Now, almost no one is on the street and there is little traffic. Few of the distinctive yellow taxis because no one is looking for rides.. Even the ambulances that normally come and go all day and night with sirens blasting are few and far between. The city is silent.

We remain self-sequestered in our 50th floor apartment. I have left it only twice since March 10, once for a disturbing walk around the block and once to go to a clinic where my “symptoms” were judged to be caused by a cold I’ve had since before coronavirus was recognized as rampant among us. I returned home from that experience chastened and profoundly disturbed at the incoming hourly news of the spreading catastrophe. I finally determined not to watch any more Coronavirus Task Force “press briefings” from the White House. The last straw was the dragging onstage of the Bible-thumper Pillow Guy who used the occasion to proclaim that the president was brought to us by God to save us from the virus. The constant slavering pandering to the president’s ego is more than I can bear to watch as thousands are dying and hundreds of thousands are suffering.

As you know if you follow the news, all of New York City is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, a dubious distinction of the worst type in the current circumstances. Broadway shows, ballet at Lincoln Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center and elsewhere, all shuttered along with the restaurants. Food deliveries are no long permitted to be brought to our door; someone must venture to the lobby to pick up everything. Absent a genuine emergency, medical appointments must be conducted by videoconference. How fortunate we are that such technology is available to us. We recently had a Zoom visit with some friends in Brooklyn, a delightful respite from the bleakness everywhere we look.

Which brings me to what is really most puzzling and disturbing. From up here, it appears that the people of New York are observing the social distancing practices recommended by the government and health experts. Of course, we can only see a tiny portion of the city, but you must wonder why the social distancing practices would vary dramatically from the limited area we can view. In any case, the number of new COVID-19 cases in New York City continues to surge. Experts are now suggesting that the early advice about how the virus spreads in the community was inaccurate. That is not a criticism because this is a new virus and the experts are learning more about it every day. But the reality appears to be that social distancing as thus far practiced has not “flattened the curve” sufficiently. The peak or apex day when the number of new cases begins to reverse is at least a week away. Maybe no one really appreciated how fast and how deeply the virus had reached before the true scale of the threat was understood.

Elsewhere, irrationality borne of cult-like beliefs in the unbelievable are causing the leaders of numerous states, mainly in the south, to either reject the experts’ medical advice entirely or to apply it very selectively. Only when the inevitable occurs and COVID-19 cases begin to surge do these geniuses decide that some response is required. Meanwhile, thousands of people crowd still-open beaches and continue about their daily lives as if nothing had happened. This is not, I must admit, solely a product of southern, religious or other regional misjudgment of reality. Even in New York City when the decision was made to leave open the many public playgrounds that dot the city, many New Yorkers flocked to them and behaved as if it was just another day in the park. The city noticed that social distancing practices were being ignored and closed the playgrounds.

I cannot leave this subject without noting another stark difference between New York and the Republican stronghold states around the country. I refer to leadership. As I was considering this post, a piece by Jon Katz appeared in the Bedlam Farm Journal, The Cuomo Brothers Versus The President: What A Show! https://bit.ly/2x2eHx8 Katz is a “former journalist and media critic” who compares the leadership performances of Donald Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during the COVID-19 crisis. I think Katz’s analysis is excellent with one major exception. He seems to think that Trump and Cuomo are basically the same except that Cuomo is better at presentation. I, on the other hand, believe that the differences are so stark and fundamental that they are a difference in kind, not merely in style.

Katz’s article contains much of what I had intended to say after watching Cuomo’s press briefing on Friday. He sat at a table flanked by senior advisors and experts in health and finance. His presentation was not accompanied by a cast of business executives parading to a microphone to sing the governor’s praises. Instead, Cuomo’s remarks related to a series of charts and graphs showing the extent of the challenges New York City and state face from the coronavirus. Much of it was bad news: “At the current burn rate we will be out of ventilators in six days.” The little good news was marked with warnings about undue optimism that could mislead people into taking unnecessary and dangerous (to themselves and others) risks by departing too soon from the social distancing and other measures designed, it is hoped, to “flatten the curve” in virus case growth and deaths. Hospitals and the doctors, nurses, orderlies and others laboring there are reaching the breaking point.

The data was clear and stark and frightening. Cuomo glossed over nothing. He spoke in full sentences in simple New York-accented English. No word salad, no gibberish, no self-praise. Just simple language, elegant in its simplicity and directness, intended to communicate both concern about the harsh realities and encouragement that we will get through this together. He carefully avoided engaging Trump in a war of words and recriminations when reporters tried to bait him into reacting to Trump’s verbal insults to New York and its health care workers.

And, in total contrast to the self-referential obsessions of the president, Cuomo said “If we fail, it’s on me.” Near, I think, to the limits of emotional control, he said “I’m doing everything I can, but people are still dying. It is very hurtful and painful. I take it very personally.” Then, after an hour of speaking hard truths and answering questions, Cuomo looked to his advisors: “Anything I said that is wrong? Now is the time to speak up.” The cameras were still rolling and there is no doubt that if any of his experts had something to qualify about his presentation, they were being called out in public to do it in full public view.

You likely will never see Donald Trump do anything like that. He maintains that everything he does and says is perfect. He is anointed and therefore cannot make mistakes. Remember that after downplaying the risks of the coronavirus while the rest of the world was being overrun by it, after claiming it was completely under control and predicting that it would soon drop to zero cases in the United States, Trump said, on camera, “No, I do not take responsibility.”

So, Cuomo: If we fail, it’s on me.

And Trump: I take no responsibility and deny I said what I said.

 

Compartmentalized Thinking Can Kill

Readers of this blog know that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU primarily uses the legal system to protect everyone’s rights, sometimes in unpopular causes. ACLU recognizes the difficult truth that if one person’s rights can be taken away, then all peoples’ rights can be taken.

Compartmentalized thinking is one of the ways we are able to look away from wrongs – it’s “them,” not “us;” “I can’t afford to get involved so I won’t think about it;” and “maybe I’ll engage later/contribute later/pay attention later, but right now I have other important things on my mind.” And many other examples. Such thinking also enables our ability to block out unpleasant thoughts and to resist the inexorable logic of exponential growth.

Compartmentalized thinking also enables us to support abstract ideas that block our awareness of the interconnectedness of events and the forces that shape our society. I read a piece from ACLU that delivered this point with unexpected force today. https://bit.ly/2wz18oq

ACLU reports that “A group of over 450 public health experts signed a public letter today warning that widespread transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus within the United States is “inevitable.” Their letter urges government decisionmakers to enact policies that will have the best chance of minimizing the effects of the virus: those based strictly on the best available scientific information, and those that are imposed in a fair and equitable fashion.”

Some will react to this with “uh oh, here they go again, worrying about peoples’ rights when we should be focused on survival.” That is, perhaps, an understandable response, but read on.

ACLU acknowledges that sometimes individual rights must yield to the “greater good.” However,

The public health experts remind us in their letter that there is a flip side to the limits on liberty …. Just as a disease cares little for our notions of individualism … neither does it care about other artifacts of our individualistic society, such as differences in wealth, status, ethnicity, or immigration status. If the authorities want to be effective in limiting the transmission of this virus, they will need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable people in our society.

A disease does not care who has health insurance, for example. You may have the best insurance in the world, but if 30 million others who are part of your bio-mass are not getting tested or treated because they lack insurance, that will increase your risk. Similarly, if members of immigrant communities fear they’re going to fall into the hands of an ICE officer if they seek treatment, that is a public health problem for all of us. A disease does not care who is undocumented.

In their letter, the public health experts call for officials to work with insurance companies to make sure that lack of insurance and high costs do not become a barrier to testing and treatment. They call for health care facilities to be declared as “immigration enforcement-free zones” — a step that has been taken before during hurricanes and other emergencies….

The experts draw attention to the need to support minimum-wage workers and others who live on the economic margins, cannot telecommute, and cannot afford to lose their job. While an office worker who is starting to feel ill may be able to self-isolate, someone in a more precarious situation may calculate the different risks they face in their life and conclude their only option is to hide their condition and head to work. A disease does not care whose employers offer good sick leave.

Finally, “Political leaders need to scrupulously ensure that their public messages are accurate and guided by science. There is a sad history of responses to emergencies that are hindered by politics,” citing  China’s response to SARS as well as coronavirus and the Soviet government’s response to Chernobyl.

Finally, the experts echo some of the longstanding lessons of their field: Voluntary self-isolation measures are more likely to induce cooperation — and therefore be effective — than coercive measures. Mandatory restrictions such as quarantines and travel bans “can be effective only under specific circumstances” and “must be guided by science, with appropriate protection of the rights of those impacted.” Those rights include due process rights to appeal confinement and the right to legal counsel. While leaders in outbreaks can be tempted to impose draconian measures as a show of strength, the letter’s signers also remind us that a disease also does not care how tough a leader looks.

The record of the Trump administration, and the President’s repeated comments contradicting the advice of health experts, do not align well with ACLU’s insightful analysis. This has led to numerous mistakes in the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Everyone needs to recognize that just about everything is now connected to just about everything. If society now turns its back on the problems faced by the uninsured and others who are under enormous pressure to survive, we will all pay a dear price. We’re all in this together, like it or not.

Final Note:  Please consider making a contribution to the ACLU. It is fighting for each of us on multiple fronts and needs financial support to continue being an effective force for truth and justice for everyone.