However, while public health mandates have been a part of American culture since the country’s founding moment, resistance to immunization treatments has an even longer history, dating back to Westerners’ suspicious assessment of Chinese inoculation practices that had been used to protect children against smallpox since the eleventh century.4 Suspicion, hesitancy, and organized resistance have accompanied vaccination regimes implemented to fight smallpox, measles, and polio as well as other common diseases over the past two centuries on the basis of religious and ethical beliefs, cultural biases, anger about government overreach, and skepticism of science despite overwhelming evidence that vaccinations saved lives and reduced suffering. So, perhaps, it is not surprising that resistance to vaccinations, mask-wearing mandates, and other public safety measures have played a significant role in the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere.
On Friday, October 1, 2021, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 crossed the 700,000 mark, surpassing the 675,000 deaths from the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 over a century before5 and totaling more than all the deaths in America’s wars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries combined.6 This grim milestone occurred in spite of freely available, highly effective vaccines and scientific consensus around the effectiveness of social distancing and mask-wearing in public spaces to reduce the spread of the highly contagious pathogen. It also serves as a reminder that epidemics are as much social phenomena as they are biological ones.
The COVID pandemic is not merely a crisis of public health, it is a crisis of faith in American institutions and in our civil society. Political polarization has confounded efforts to build consensus about how to combat the disease and increased distrust and resentment. The perspectives and resources collected here provide a humanistic context to help understand the complexities of the current crisis. They also suggest ways the humanities can ameliorate suffering and mitigate future crises by forging connections that simultaneously recognize and transcend our individual needs and identities by encouraging us to embrace our role as citizens and community members.
- “How a Public Health Crisis Nearly Derailed the American Revolution,” Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, April 16, 2020 (accessed 10/3/21)
- “Individual Rights and the Public’s Health: Constitutional, Ethical, and Political Aspects of COVID-19 Measures and Their Enforcement,” The Network for Public Health Law, February 24, 2021 (accessed 10/3/21)
- “On this Day, the Supreme Court Rules on Vaccines and Public Health,” Nicholas Mosvick, The National Constitution Center, February 20, 2021 (accessed 10/3/21)
- “Rash Decisions: Anti-vaccination Movements in Historical Perspective,” Jim Harris, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, November 2019 (accessed 10/3/21)
- “U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses 700,000 Despite Wide Availability of Vaccines,” Julie Bosman and Lauren Leatherby, The New York Times, October 1, 2021 (accessed 10/3/21)
- “The Real Reason this Pandemic is the Deadliest to Ever Hit the US,” Jeffrey Sachs, CNN.com, September 22, 2021 (accessed 10/3/21)
Find out how you can get informed, get involved, and take action on this and other issues.
What some experts are saying:
- “How to Talk About Freedom During a Pandemic,” Graham Mooney, The Atlantic, May 19, 2020
- “Can a Virus Undermine Human Rights?” Olivier Nay, The Lancet, April 20, 2020
- “Individual Freedom or Public Health? A False Choice in the Covid Era,” Jonathan Cohen, Hastings Bioethics Forum, June 9, 2020
- “Individual Liberty, Public Health, and the Battle for the Nation’s Soul,” Scott Burris, The Regulatory Review, June 7, 2021
- “The Limits of ‘My Body, My Choice’,” Tish Harrison Warren, The New York Times, September 26, 2021
- “What’s the Law on Vaccine Exemptions? A Religious Liberty Expert Explains,” Douglas Laycock, The Conversation, September 15, 2021
- “Humanities as Essential Services,” Kirsten Ostherr, Inside Higher Ed, May 21, 2020
Materials for further exploration:
- The Continuing Tensions between Individual Rights and Public Health.Talking Point on Public Health versus Civil Liberties, Ronald Bayer, EMBO Reports, December 2007
- Ethics Guidance and Resources on Covid-19, The Hastings Center
- Resources Archive, The Network for Public Health Law
- Public Health Law Academy, Change Lab Solutions
- Humanities in the Time of Covid: The Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus, Sari Altschuler and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Autumn 2020
- Pandemics: Past, Present, and Future, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
- History of Vaccines, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia