Credit: George Danby

As Americans, we have rights, but they are not absolute. My right to swing my arm ends at your nose. In times of public emergency, our rights might be limited as well. And this is a public emergency. There are more than 2 million coronavirus cases in the US, with numbers rising in 21 states. COVID-19 has killed more Americans than the populations of Bangor and Portland combined. It is simply the most devastating infectious disease threat in a century.

This coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is called “novel” because it is just that: new. Experts are learning more every day about how it spreads, how it causes damage to the body, and how our immune system responds to it. As our scientific understanding of the virus changes, so do recommendations from public health authorities. Our behavior in response to those recommendations impacts the spread of the virus, in turn affecting the policies.

Mindful of current science and local specifics, political leaders are juggling competing values — protecting public health, maintaining a stable economy, promoting quality of life, and, in the past two weeks, protecting our right to peaceably assemble.

Our Constitution and its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court allow that in times of crisis, our rights may have to be restrained to protect the safety of the general public. What those restrictions are will depend on the circumstances, and they must be tailored to meet a compelling public interest. Americans disagree on where the line is between an individual’s right to work and travel freely and the government’s authority to protect public safety during this pandemic. Having these public debates is a sign that democracy is alive and well.

But when protestors carry signs telling Gov. Janet Mills to “free ME,” or to release the “hostages,” they do not seem to understand what our framers knew: rights may be inherent to individuals, but they require a well-ordered society to be effective. Just as community depends on rights, rights depend on community.

In virtue of being human, we are connected to one another. Especially at its beginning and end, a human life is marked by its dependence on the care of others. We all need other people if we want to live and flourish, even in the best of times. Vulnerability is a universal condition of our embodied being.

COVID-19 has reminded us forcefully of just how interdependent we are. We are reminded by empty supermarket shelves, the challenges of remote learning, sick and absent coworkers, and the pain of not being able to hug our friends.

Especially in times like these, we have moral responsibilities that go beyond asserting our rights. We have to protect the vulnerable members of our community. That means making choices that prevent harm to people whose well-being we have the power to affect.

We may have equal rights, but we do not have equal vulnerabilities. Some in our community, such as those older than 65, or those with certain medical conditions, are more likely to suffer significantly by contracting the disease.

Despite what relaxed restrictions might suggest, we are in the acceleration phase of this pandemic, when the peak of illnesses occurs, and we have no vaccine and no cure. We all have to do our part to stop the spread.

I have a pretty good sense of the steps I can take: I can wear a mask, socially distance and stay home if I have symptoms. I’m not doing this because the governor or the Centers for Disease Control said so. I’m doing it simply because it is the right thing to do.

Of course, we must acknowledge that social distancing and other measures have their own unintended negative effects: lost income, mental health issues, higher rates of domestic violence. Just as with coronavirus infections, these risks are higher for some groups than others in our community. But the answer is not picking one set of risks and ignoring the other. We can roll up our sleeves to minimize both.

We should not be passive either to the threat of COVID-19, or to the threats that emerge from public policies designed to eradicate it. We can reach out, offer our services, give money, donate, get involved as citizens, and more. We must be proactive in protecting the most vulnerable, whatever the source of their potential harm.

Does this make me a “sheep,” to quote another protest sign? Quite the contrary: My ability to think beyond myself, to recognize and empathize with the vulnerabilities of others, is the most human trait I possess.

Jessica Miller is professor of philosophy and associate dean for faculty affairs and interdisciplinary programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Maine.