COVID-19: Liberty on Hold

We stand at an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history in more ways than one. What started as a public health conflict has morphed into a conflict over the central theme of democracy: what is American liberty? This shift is evident in the deeply divided nation over the state of the novel coronavirus, as on Thursday, April 16, dozens of Virginians took to the capital to protest Governor Northam’s (Virginia-D) handling of the pandemic. 


According to the CDC, as of April 16, there are 6,889 verified cases and 208 deaths in the state of Virginia, with local hotspots in Northern Virginia and central Virginia. On Wednesday, Governor Northam extended the closure of businesses until May 8, a move that is being countered by protestors who call this “tyranny.” ReOpen Virginia, End The Lockdown VA, and Virginians Against Excessive Quarantine were among the groups that marched on the Virginia State Capital on Thursday. These Virginians want the choice to open their businesses, instead of listening to health experts or government officials who have warned for a more gradual release process. The current restrictions in place call for gatherings no larger than 10 people, but these individuals believe their fundamental rights are being violated by a government- mandated quarantine. 


These groups are calling for the opening of the economy on May 1 by healthy citizens with enhanced sanitation habits. However, experts such as Dr. Tom Moore, an infectious disease specialist in Wichita, Kansas, has called for “aggressive testing” in order to open business so that consumers can be reassured that it is safe for them to return to work. On April 16, President Trump unveiled his plans to reopen the economy in a three phase process, calling for specific criteria that can be applied on a state by state basis. However, his plan only includes robust testing for healthcare workers, symptomatic individuals, contact tracing, with a brief mention of more research into the coveted antibody test.


This tension is only growing as the newest unemployment numbers estimate about 22 million Americans are without work and have applied for benefits. This number is likely much higher, since many workers do not qualify for unemployment benefits but have still lost work as a result of the pandemic. The highest employment our nation has ever seen was 24.9% in 1933, which would be catastrophic for Americans. These protestors warn that if the economy is not opened soon, the economic damage will be irreversible. The success of our economy recovery is pivotal in determining how the legacy of this pandemic will be judged. 


Within Virginia, this protest also comes after a long week of Northam signing into law a wide variety of liberal bills, including decriminalizing marijuana, removing ID requirements for voting, and adding protections for L.G.B.T.Q. residents. UVA Director of Political Science Larry Sabato called these policy shifts “a gigantic change” in the face of the first liberal period in Virginia’s history. These new policies did not go unnoticed by the Trump administration, with the President tweeting “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your second amendment. It is under siege!” In this tweet, the President is referring to the numerous gun law bills Governor Northam signed including universal background checks, limiting handgun purchases, and establishing the “red flag” law that seeks to temporarily remove guns from individuals who are deemed dangerous to others. 


During massive global crises, it is normal for misinformation and panic to spread like wildfire, but it is evident that these ideological wars are only heightening anxiety about the panic and there seem to be no winners. Virginians are suffering and it is crucial that the experts continue to advocate for transparency for the people so that everyone can resume their lives and embrace the “new normal.” 


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