Coronavirus Management Should Respect Individual Choice


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

With the recent surge of coronavirus cases, Hawai‘i is facing a serious crisis. While the coronavirus crisis is real, I’m talking about the crisis of respect for each other and for each other’s choices.

All around us, we can see the way that COVID-19 and its new Delta variant are pitting the residents of our island state against each other. There are those who value our government’s management of the current health emergency, and others who value protecting individual liberty and freedom of choice. These values are often viewed as being in conflict with each other, dividing friends, families and neighbors as tempers flare and conflicts arise.

But disagreements don’t always need to be defined by anger and conflict. It is possible to embrace both values — public health and freedom — while working together to find a solution.

In doing so, we must be true to each value. Yes, government is needed during times of crises and must occasionally take exceptional action for the greater good. Yet, at the same time, government must not go so far as to destroy the very liberties it exists to protect.

This is not to say that exercising freedom allows one to ignore responsibility to others. The freedom I exercise to throw my fist ends where another person’s nose begins. We all need to make sure that our personal health choices do not harm others.

As the coronavirus state of emergency grinds on and new restrictions and mandates continue to roll out, we face a critical question: Where do we draw the line? At what point do these restrictions infringe on freedom?

To some extent, this is a question that everyone must wrestle with in his or her own mind. Maybe you choose to go places that require a mask. Maybe you choose not to go places that require one. Maybe you choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Maybe you choose not to. The important thing is that your choice matters.

In September, our state and local governments announced new restrictions on businesses and their patrons. Now, I recognize that the government has a role in managing a public health crisis, educating the public on vaccinations and making the vaccine widely available. But there is a point when the individual’s freedom to choose disappears and the government begins to infringe on personal liberty.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for government efforts that have encouraged a majority of our island population to voluntarily get vaccinated. And the keyword here is voluntarily. Government can encourage, educate, and incentivize, but I am deeply concerned when it resorts to forcing individuals to take a vaccine against their will.

We can debate the advisability of vaccine mandates for particular jobs or activities, but we can also still make the case that personal choice should remain paramount. When reasonable exemptions are in place, no one should end up losing their job over a personal choice not to be vaccinated.

Of course, this is a complex issue. But no matter where you stand, it should be easy to see that a generalized vaccine mandate for all residents gives government too much control over what should be a personal choice.

This won’t be the last emergency our state goes through. What is controversial now may become routine in the future. But we are facing a real challenge to civil liberties in Hawaiʻi, and it behooves us to stop for a moment and ponder the future.

We can agree to disagree on the vaccine and coronavirus management. But we must respect each other’s individual health choices.

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