May 20, 2020
In a time of pandemic disease and depression-level economic decline, the source of our political controversies both give us cause to be grateful and illuminate a need for extending understanding and grace toward those with whom we may disagree.
Protests against pandemic public health restrictions have appeared in states across the nation, including here in Utah. Condemnation and divisiveness from all sides quickly followed: condemnation of protesters for putting the health of vulnerable populations at risk, and condemnation of state and local officials for restricting basic rights and freedoms.
These events have generated political controversy. They are also natural and predictable, when you consider the impacts of measures to fight the pandemic. In the analysis of American Enterprise Institute scholar Jay Cost:
This quarantine has been an incredibly destructive policy, and the harms have not been distributed evenly across the United States. Some people are suffering much, much more than others. It is a testament to the American spirit that so many have endured this hardship for so long — a tribute to our people’s commitment to the good of all. But these protests are an indication that this kind of fellow-feeling only goes so far. Absent a draconian police state or a massive system of bribery and patronage, respect for the law is ultimately premised on the belief that the law is good. If enough people conclude that these laws are ruining them, look out.
Social distancing and compliance with state and county stay-at-home directives have helped gain control of the spread of COVID-19, based on state public health data. They have also inflicted historic levels of economic pain – likely long-lasting economic pain – on specific groups of Utah families and businesses.
It stands to reason that such focused financial harm would eventually draw protests. As Sutherland wrote over a month ago: “The American people, including Utahns, are unlikely to consent to a self-inflicted recession for an extended period of time.” The protests against public health restrictions are a predictable signal that for some people, those limitations are evolving from seeming reasonable to seeming unjust. This remains true even if strict public health measures were necessary for, and certainly successful at, arresting the spread of COVID-19.
So before condemning those protesting public health restrictions, a healthier place to start would be to recognize that many of us might want to protest if public policy harmed our families by crushing our livelihood.
Of course, protests do not mean that restrictions recommended by public health experts were the wrong policy decision. Elected leaders considered a range of information, factors and expertise – just like we elect them to do – before choosing the path they deemed the best option for public health. It was inevitable that those decisions would eventually produce disagreement, but the existence of such disagreement doesn’t prove those decisions were wrong.
In other words, before condemning public officials, a healthier place to start would be to acknowledge that if we were elected to make decisions that could save lives, prioritizing public health over economic concerns might seem reasonable.
In such a unique, life-changing moment like the one we are living right now, Utahns – and history – should be quick to extend grace, rather than condemnation, toward both fellow Utahns and elected leaders. This does not mean silencing disagreement or refusing to question decisions. Nor does it mean we should not take political action.
Rather, as we register disagreement and take political action, it means doing do so with a healthy dose of understanding for those on the other side. Everyone in the current circumstances is an imperfect person acting on incomplete information while moving into an unpredictable future. Mistakes on all sides are natural and to be expected – practically inevitable.
Examining those mistakes will help us learn from them. The way mistakes were made and corrected should develop in us a sense of gratitude for the society in which we live. Even in extreme circumstances such as a pandemic, we are free to make mistakes, learn from and correct them, and move forward offering understanding and help to each other, grounded in and bonded by shared experience.
Particularly in a time of pandemic disease and slow economic recovery, many people around the world are not so fortunate.
Caring for children and families in vulnerable situations is an undoubted public priority, and everyone willing to provide good-faith help is needed.
The year 2021 has started fast and furious in the political space. Rioting at the U.S. Capitol and the banning of our president from certain big tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter have continued the national discussion about speech and ideas.
Ensuring that Utah civics education is adequate will take a statewide commitment from more than just the Legislature (and it’s usually better when it comes from more local decisionmakers), and it will demand that we avoid simplistic solutions about teachers or schools simply needing to “do better.”