Credit: George Danby

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It is springtime in Maine and we are running the Corona River. No one has scouted this river before, no one can tell us what is ahead. We do not know whether that riffle is a jagged rock just below the surface or a deep boulder, whether the view around the next bend will be of calm water or rapids with falls at the bottom. Hazards abound, sometimes visible but mostly out of sight.

We do know instinctively that if we veer too far left, we will hit hidden ledges and people will die — mainly the elderly, the infirm and health care workers, but it could be any of us. If we stick to the right there are other hazards — economic hardship for many and likely ruin for those who can least afford it. The current carries us swiftly along whether we like it or not. Our course is twisting and uncertain, backing, drawing, ferrying, never a straight line.

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There are no Maine Guides with experience on this river. We have an elected helmswoman who must be in all places at all times, looking forward, behind, at the long view, at the rock we just scraped by. She depends on us as lookouts and her team for expertise; we depend on her steady hand.

Mainers are good at dealing with adversity. Navigating this river is no different. Its tumultuous waters are perhaps worse than others but we know how to work together. We mask, keep our distance and care for our neighbors. As the water roils past us, we understand that we will have to change our lives so that we all can get down the river successfully, young and old, weak and strong, all of us.

Treacherous waters call for careful balance. Unfortunately, some in our boat are sitting on the gunnels and threaten to upset our balance. They deny the possibility of future rapids and ignore ledges, overhanging branches and underwater obstacles. They seem to know what the river has in store and insist on steering to the right. They protest, they congregate, they do not follow the law. They put the rest of us at risk.

They expose us all, themselves included, to the hazards of ledges and shallows. In addition, they expose themselves to “moral hazard.” Moral hazard occurs when people carelessly take risks, knowing that if things go wrong someone else will bear the responsibility of rescuing them. If the protesters get sick, in their next breath they will likely call for rescue from the same health care workers whose safety and well-being they now endanger. Unthinking disregard of the lives of others is immoral.

The term “ moral hazard” emerged in the 17th century when insurance companies first used it to describe those individuals and firms that, once insured, took risks greater than those that they would have taken if they had to bear the full cost of their decisions. It applies, for example, to motorcyclists who do not wear helmets and depend on public support if they suffer severe head trauma. In the 2000s banks, “ too big to fail,” made risky loans assuming that the government and taxpayers would bail them out if they failed.

These examples are similar in that the original actors are depending on others to bail them out if things go wrong. The risk takers are not assuming full responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Children sometimes behave in this way but can be excused. They rarely think of all possible consequences of their actions because their brains are untrained.

The self-centered lack the imagination to see the world beyond the end of their noses. On the other hand, the current coronavirus protesters, like the fraudulent merchants of the 17th century, know full well what they are doing. They are taking advantage of the good intentions of others to rescue them. They assert their constitutional right to protest. To do so verbally is fine but to actually demonstrate in public without a mask is immoral. Free speech does not extend to spreading the virus. Their actions are blind, unthinking and profound in their selfishness.

The river runs full. The course ahead is much harder to see than the course astern. We are all on the same journey and can get to the end only if we mask up, look out for one another, and pull together.

Geoff Gratwick of Bangor is a retired physician and state senator.

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