Is COVID-19 our best civics teacher?

Written by Christine Cooke

March 20, 2020

Just today an otherwise apolitical friend called asking how to write a letter to their U.S. senator about the coronavirus. The past couple of days others have reached out asking if state or local governments can enforce declared precautions in their area. And other friends and family members have been looking for ways to help – one of the more beautiful responses to a time of uncertainty.

It appears that the coronavirus pandemic is leading us into a crash course in civics. 

Civics education is defined as the study of our rights and responsibilities as citizens. And nothing forces us to think through our rights and responsibilities like a public health crisis.

Here are some things to keep in mind as we continue to hear press conferences and government updates during this time.

Our rights

As Americans, we cherish our rights and we’ve enshrined the most important ones – those endowed by our Creator as declared by our Founders – in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

While our rights are fundamental, and in certain circumstances inalienable, there are nuances during times of crisis.

For example, the executive branch at both the national, state, and local levels have some constitutionally implied and statutorily established emergency powers when a state of emergency is declared. Most often these come into play for natural disasters.

According to the Utah Department of Public Safety, over the past several years, most state declarations of emergency have been for wildfires and flooding.

On March 6, before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state of Utah, Governor Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency due to the imminent spread of the sickness. Since then the executive has presented recommendations about event gathering sizes, announced a “soft closure” for public schools, and issued state orders for restaurants and small businesses to offer takeout options only.

Some areas in the nation have implemented stricter measures, which can cause people to wonder – what’s next?

San Francisco, for instance, has ordered the public not to leave home except for essential needs. A New Hampshire man was issued an official order of isolation after breaking self-quarantine. A father in Missouri took his daughter to a school dance after being told to self-quarantine and was threatened with an official quarantine by force of law. Another man in Kentucky who tested positive with the virus refused to comply with an order to self-quarantine and found armed deputies outside his house to enforce it.

Of course, state actions can be challenged, and not all state actions have been found constitutional.  State or national emergencies can also become politicized – like the southern border or the suggestion that climate change or gun deaths ought to be considered a national crisis. But on the whole, state actions during times of emergency are seen as a legitimate function of government.

For now, we can say that the government can implement emergency measures during a crisis, but those powers have limits and can be refined in the courts.

Our responsibilities

During times of crisis, our individual responsibilities change as well.

Especially for those who preach the benefits of limited government, public crises become a time to live out civic engagement – the kind that comes from genuine concern rather than from government coercion.

Civic engagement is not limited to engaging with the government in official committee meetings or periods of public comment or letters to representatives. The term can be defined broadly as activities that advance the public good.

This is an important distinction to make because the best solutions typically spring from individuals rather than from government. And even when it comes to government officials, Americans trust their state and local leaders the most to address problems – an instinct grounded in a belief that those from our community can navigate unique details better than anyone else.

The best news is civic engagement in our communities knows no limits and doesn’t require a state announcement. It can start with our willingness to voluntarily live out the recommendations proffered by the state – like social distancing, washing our hands, and keeping a reasonable amount of resources on hand rather than hoarding – and it can reach all the way to how we treat the people in our communities.

If we want to be civically engaged during a crisis, we can start with some basics by asking ourselves a few questions. How are we responding to official public recommendations – are we dismissive if we think the topic is overblown, or do we meet recommendations with anger if we think they’re not strong enough? What activities have we forgone to willingly minimize our public interactions – especially with those in high-risk categories? What words of comfort have we offered family members or friends as they deal with economic, physical or emotional challenges? And even what courtesies have we extended to strangers in the gas station or grocery store during a time when it’s tempting to forget that this surreal time will pass at some point?

All of this is civic engagement lived out.

Americans don’t just love our rights; we have a history of understanding responsibility. Our society has weathered tough times because of a commitment to each other as people rather than just as co-existing residents. This is something that can continue.

The pandemic, and any other emergencies that come along, will require us to think through civic engagement. And to live it.

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