This week I am following up on my post “You Are Killing Me!“
As I turn right out of my driveway, and approach the end of the block, there is a large red octagonal sign which displays the letters “STOP”. If I turn right at that point and proceed another block, there is an intersection with another road. There is a light suspended above the center of the road that cycles between the colours of Green, Yellow, and Red. Proceeding across the intersecting road I immediately see a rectangular sign that displays the word “MAXIMUM”, the number “40”, and a series of symbols “km/h”. Just past the third sign is the entrance to my children’s elementary school.
We would of course recognize these as a stop sign, a traffic light, and a speed limit sign. The third might require a little translation for some, as might the first if I lived one province to the east.
What these signs do illustrate is the relationships between rights, risks, and responsibilities.
The signs are there because of competing rights. What do I mean by that?
Going way, way back, I remember my grade 11 Law course teacher, Mr. Thorne, teaching us about rights. “In general”, he said, “you have the right to do whatever you want. And that right ends and the end of someone else’s nose.”
That comment has stuck with me through this 40 years. I have the right to do whatever I want until it impacts someone else. At that point my freedom to enjoy that right absolutely, ends.
The problem comes when my right to do something conflicts with your right to do something.This is known as “competing rights.”
Let us imagine for a moment that the signs and traffic light did not exist.
Let us also assume for the moment that driving a car is a right. (We will avoid the right versus privilege debate for now, although that ties into the discussion.)
You have the right to drive your car. You need it to get to work.
My child has the right to an education. He does not have a car and so he walks. He has the right to arrive at his school alive.
We have a potential collision of rights at that intersection, not to mention a potential collision of child with car.
The right of the driver to drive to work unencumbered comes in conflict with the right of the child to arrive at school alive.
This is where the concept of “the greater good” comes in. When you have conflicting rights, they have to be weighed up against each other to determine which is of higher value.
In this case here, it was long ago determined that the driver’s right is superseded by the child’s right, and so regulations and restrictions were put into place to mitigate the risk that the child’s rights might be breached.
Libby Jones wrote this creative post back in May. You can see how it start to tie back into last week’s post.
“This is a new invention, it’s called a traffic light. When it’s green, you can drive through it. When it’s red, you have to stop and wait for it to turn green.”
“Sounds like the government thinks it knows more than I do about how to drive my own car!”
“Well, people are dying in intersections. At a very sad rate. And getting hurt pretty badly, too. And this is something pretty easy we can all do together to keep people from dying and getting hurt.”
“But I haven’t died in this intersection. And I actually don’t know anyone else who’s died here either. You sure people aren’t maybe, like, falling off their roofs and you’re just saying they died in this intersection? To make us scared so you can control us?”
“People are definitely dying in this very intersection. But just look at the light, and go when it’s green. Stop when it’s red. We’ll add a yellow one so you know when it’s about to turn red.”
“But if I have to stop when it’s red, I won’t get where I’m going as fast. Sounds like you’re infringing on my freedom. Sounds like you don’t want me to get to work to earn a living and you want me to rely on the government for everything.”
“That’s….no. No one wants that. Look, we know no one’s going to like stopping at the red light. It’s going to be a small inconvenience for everyone. But again, if we all do this perfectly, together, we can keep people from dying in this intersection.”
“Well if people are so scared of this intersection, maybe they should just walk! Leave the cars to those of us who don’t want to live in fear!”
“That’s the thing – many of the people dying *are* pedestrians.”
“Look, how about if someone wants to stop at the light they can, but if someone else doesn’t want to stop, they don’t have to. It should be my choice. This is a free country, you know.”
“Again, this will work if everyone does it together. Just one person doing whatever they want has the potential to kill other people.”
“Just one person doing whatever they want has the potential to kill other people.”
That is what I was getting at last week. The significant number for the spread of Covid-19 is the reproduction (R) value. In short it is the number of people on average that each infected person in turn infects. “The reproduction number is not fixed. Instead, it changes as our behaviour changes, or as immunity develops.” The number has to be below one to stop the increasing spread of the virus. In hindsight, here is what it looked like in the U.K. as measures were taken to control the virus. (Modelling courtesy of Mathematical modelers at the Imperial College of London.)
Clearly there were a number of actions taken over a short period of time that resulted in a dramatic drop in the R value. We can’t really judge the individaul results of each of those actions in this case as they were taken very hastily to combat a very bad situation.
Looking back at the discussion of rights: If your actions impact other people, including their right to life, then we have a competing right. In those circumstances, regulations are quite reasonable. We put in stop signs, and traffic lights, and speed limits to reduce deaths on the road. It is reasonable to do the same to reduce deaths due to Covid-19. Has there been overreach? Sure. The more we learn, the more we can get it right.
What about risk?
Justin made the comment last week:
… We fool ourselves to think we can control any of it. Covid makes the number of threats reach 1000+1. I check off several of the high-risk factors myself, so the number soars to 1007.
No one is killing anyone else…
This is where I disagree with Justin. Covid-19 does not have a fixed R value. It does not take us from 1000 to 1001. It rises and falls with our actions. The number of people dying from Covid-19 is totally controllable. Look at the graph from the U.K. above.
Those who ignore, skirt, or flaunt those regulations, are like those who run red lights, or speed through school zones, or might I add drive drunk. They increase the risk to those around them. They increase the deaths around them.
I have long felt that driving under the influence should warrant a much more severe penalty. It is like playing Russian Roulette every time you get behind the wheel. Maybe you won’t kill a pedestrian this time… or maybe you will.
I agree with Justin that I face risks every day. But I reject his contention that those risks are unavoidable and uncontrollable. The data shows that when it comes to Covid-19 that simply isn’t true.
And that brings me to my fourth word: Responsibility.
Being a member of a society involves responsibility. Being responsible to follow traffic guidelines and drive safely. Being responsible not to drive drunk. And doing your best to not spread Covid-19 to others.
My wife tells of one speaker she heard on a radio show who was commenting on a crowded Toronto park: “I would love to go to the park. But I have a nice back yard. So while I have every right to go to the park, there are others who don’t have a nice back yard, and I would like to give them the ability to enjoy the park without my extra presence.” This is acting responsibly. I would encourage us not only to obey the letter of the regulations at this time, but where we are able, to go above and beyond. There are lives (including mine) that depend upon it.