Guest commentary: Open or close? The messy parts of living in a free country

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When I was in nursing school, I was surprised to learn that “patients have a right to fall.”

The concept, then, and now, was based upon a person’s right to choose due to informed and voluntary consents. Patients have a right to understand treatments, the purposes of them, potential risks and benefits, etc. Patients also have the right to be free from coercion, constraint and force. If a patient chooses not to participate in a procedure that can cure him/her, that right is upheld. People have the right and freedom to direct their own lives.

Although those initial lessons in patient rights occurred over 20 years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic raises similar issues. Do people have the right to catch COVID-19, or is it more a question of whether people have the right to possibly spread COVID-19? Perception defines responses.

People have been in “lock-down” for the past two months due to a virus that we still know little about. After months of researching, scientists definitively know that COVID-19 is a virus. Beyond that, the data is conflicting. That which is unknown is infinitely greater than that which is known. Every other week, information changes. Vague, incomplete and terrifying data is reported daily. It is scary.

Just as scary to millions is watching businesses, some that have existed for generations, disintegrate, day by day. That fact, unlike COVID-19, is clear to those business owners and to their employees. It is more terrifying to them than possibly catching COVID-19 and dying.

Most business owners are risk-takers, so reopening is not as much a matter of life and death as it is an innate need to provide for their families, employees and communities.

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution states, “No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The 14th Amendment also states, “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….” Those rights exist and were created to protect the individual from governmental oppression.

Despite those rights, states have a fundamental duty to protect the public’s health and safety. In doing so, they may exercise a latent “police power.”

States must take action to assure that the public’s general welfare is protected. However, determining proportionality of those actions and the overall benefit to the public has become a matter of heated debate. Each position holds valid and weighted arguments. When the scale of legitimacy moves in either direction, outbursts from the opposition occur.

As a nurse, I am aware of physical issues, treatments, etc. related to the body.

COVID-19 is real. It is a virus that has and will continue to spread. Some will tragically die. Some will recover. Some will not experience it at all. Those who were critical and have recovered have horror stories to tell about the experience. Sparing others from the disease is a priority to many who have lived through it.

But the body also includes the mind. The psychological make-up of a person is just as significant, if not more so. Failing to include the psychology of people into the equation of an economic-freeze is also failing to consider the general welfare of the public.

Removing a person’s livelihood does more to the individual than just take away his/her income; It takes away purpose from his/her life. Having no reason to get out of bed each morning has an extreme effect upon a person. We live in a country that is based upon being productive. Removing a person’s ability to do so renders feelings of worthlessness. Floundering, even if only for a few of months, can have long-term psychological impacts.

Having no purpose, no meaning in life, creates an inner void. The awareness of this emptiness leads people into states of depression and self-destructive behaviors. When one’s purpose in life is pulled out from under him/her, rebounding is more than challenging. Worthlessness consumes the individual.

Contributing to society, to one’s family, or to oneself by working, provides purpose. People have said that their jobs do not define them; They shouldn’t. What their jobs do for them is validate their existence. Going to work each day, no matter what the job, provides people with a means to substantiate their purposes.

I personally believe that the life of one individual, regardless of position or status in life, is the most valuable gift each of us is given. Whether homeless, or serving in the House, that individual has worth. Loss of a person’s life due to a horrible virus, or from one’s own hand, yields the same result: Death. No one wins, least of all, society.

In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience,” he states, “But where there is one, there is a majority of one, and, when the rights of the majority take away from the rights of the one, then the many will themselves suffer” (Aesthetic Papers, 1849). Each person has rights and each person can exercise those rights. In this country, they are not temporary rights. Every person has rights that are equal to every other person’s. Your rights have no more power than mine, nor are mine greater than yours.

Every day, people are protesting closures across the country. Others argue that things are re-opening before they should. Each state has different circumstances, so each governor is directing the situation for his/her state. Some argue that this governor, or that governor, is making the wrong decisions, one way or another. Maybe they are, but this is one of the messy parts of living in a free country based on a Constitution that gives rights to the people. At some point, Constitutional interpretation fades and the recognition of what is, is.

Instead of politicizing wearing masks vs. not, opening vs. remaining closed, eating out vs. staying in, maybe it is time to exercise some of that tolerance that those from both sides of the argument speak of when convenient.

Awareness is limited to one’s reality. You, nor I, can identify with it because we are not the other person. That which is destroying my neighbor may not be a blip on your radar. That which is psychologically controlling you may not be a drop of water in my pool.

Medically, will there be cases of COVID-19 that otherwise would not have occurred if businesses remained closed? Absolutely. Will there be extreme harm if businesses do not open? Absolutely. There will be pain, suffering and loss of life regardless of position held.

Every day one gets out of bed, he/she takes a chance. People slip in showers, fall, hit their heads and die. A person could be driving on the interstate and a tire from the street above could dislodge from a semi-truck, bounce onto the interstate and land on top of someone’s vehicle. A person could experience a cardiac arrest, fall to the ground and breathe his/her last breath. We never know what is going to happen each day, which is why we should appreciate every moment.

In January, did you anticipate that your spring would involve teaching your kids from home, standing in line for hours outside Costco hoping to buy some toilet paper, or wearing a mask on a day other than Halloween? We do not know what will occur in the hours to come.

Making the effort to understand another’s position on COVID-19 issues may not solve the current ills of society, but hopefully, it will extend a bit of compassion to one’s opposition.

Diverse perceptions have enabled this country to create and transform the world. It is a good thing. So, choose to live life as you believe to be the best for you, and don’t hinder others from doing likewise.

And, also, be mindful that it may not be safe to open restaurants, gyms or retail stores, but here, where we live, patients have a right to fall.

Editor’s note: Vickilyn Alvey, RN, MSN, MC, grew up Litchfield Park. She is a graduate of Agua Fria High School and has worked as a nurse for 24 years. She holds a master’s degree in counseling, paralegal certification and has been a licensed real estate agent for more than 30 years.

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