Mike Hoeflich: Shall we sacrifice vulnerable for convenience of others?

Mike Hoeflich
Special to Gannett Kansas
Mike Hoeflich

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

— William Shakespeare

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster on a magnitude few of us have ever experienced. It has brought out the best in many people and, I hate to say, the worst in others. The response to the pandemic has become politicized, and steps to limit the spread of the virus have been labeled as violations of constitutional rights.

I believe that good people can differ on whether government should mandate solutions to complex issues of public health, economics and law, but there has recently been a growing chorus of people who object to something less defensible: voluntarily wearing masks in public.

More troubling has been those who refuse to wear masks who say if vulnerable people die because others don’t want to wear masks, then that is the way it has to be. I take great objection to this and say a call to wear masks voluntarily has nothing to do with civil liberties and everything to do with common decency, humanity and the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this nation rests.

I am 68, diabetic and asthmatic. That puts me square in the middle of the “vulnerable” group who face a significant risk of severe illness and possibly death from COVID. My concern with people who would sacrifice the vulnerable so that the world can get back to “normal” is, therefore, personal.

But I am also quite fortunate because my employer has done everything possible to ensure that vulnerable employees are protected and productive. I am also blessed that I have friends shop for me and do everything they can to minimize my exposure to the virus.

I believe that I will survive the pandemic because of this help and concern. But I also know that many vulnerable folks are not so fortunate as me.

Like many people, I follow the news about the virus daily, hoping always for good news. Every article I have read suggests that the scientific evidence is clear: If people wear masks in public, the spread of the virus will be greatly reduced.

Voluntary mask wearing raises no constitutional issues. Voluntary mask wearing does not impede opening businesses nor harm the economy. Wearing a mask can be annoying, but life can sometimes be annoying.

Should we be arguing about mask wearing and the right to refuse to wear masks, knowing that every reputable scientific study makes it clear that by refusing we increase the probability that more vulnerable people will die from the virus?

To me, this attitude is a combination of selfishness and Social Darwinism, the belief that the world is cruel and that only the strongest survive. That is a creed that has never won much support among people of faith. Why, then, is it gaining ground now?

For the majority of Americans, Christ’s words have meaning:

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy [Matthew 5:7]

A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another: as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. [John 13:34]

There was a time not so long ago that people when faced by a difficult decision would ask, “What would Jesus do?”

I think the answer is clear. There should be no debate about wearing masks to save the lives of the vulnerable. We must embrace mercy and love each other, not adopt a Social Darwinist worldview in which the vulnerable are put in mortal peril for the convenience of the strong.

That we must reject wholeheartedly.

Mike Hoeflich teaches law at the University of Kansas School of Law.