News Story

Governments, Officials, Media Making People, Not Virus, The Enemy

The ACLU warned about this in a 2008 report on the Bush administration’s epidemic plans

In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report critical of plans created by the George W. Bush administration for handling a nationwide epidemic.

The ACLU emphasized 12 years ago “the disastrous consequences of public health policies built around a vision of sick people as the enemy.”

“Rather than focusing on how government can work with individuals and their communities to be healthy, public health policymakers now often emphasize the need to take tough, coercive actions against the very people they are charged to help,” the ACLU wrote in 2008. “This approach not only targets people as the enemy instead of the disease, but also encourages health officials to believe that government cannot do much to help people in an epidemic.”

“In effect, individuals are viewed as personally responsible for the spread of illness,” according to the report. “This law enforcement/national security strategy shifts the focus of preparedness from preventing and mitigating an emergency to punishing people who fail to follow orders and stay healthy.”

In Michigan, a second statewide lockdown order that began Nov. 18 has not slowed an increase in new cases. Nor have complaints from public officials, who are seen by many residents as chastising them for not observing government mandates with sufficient rigor.

Yet the state’s surge in COVID-19 cases appears to be no different from what is happening elsewhere in the U.S., or across the world. Russia, Germany, Poland and other countries have seen a similar acceleration in new cases since late September.

The broad geographic scope of the current surge hasn’t prevented Michigan pundits and politicians from blaming people here for the spike in new cases. A column by Lansing State Journal sportswriter Graham Couch illustrates the pattern of shaming:

“We also need to look at ourselves, even those of us who think we’re doing it right,” Couch wrote in a Nov. 17 column. “Have you let too many people inside your bubble? Had five or six friends in your living room lately? Been swept up in the excitement of a political victory, celebrating in close proximity with hundreds of strangers? Have you ordered your meal from a waiter without your mask on, just because you were seated at your table and were allowed to?”

Couch encouraged the shaming of people: “Whether it’s your own brother or the state senate majority leader, it’s time to stop shrugging off foolish and dangerous behavior. They’re not an opposing opinion. It’s all bull. It’s either based in callousness or ignorance and it deserves to be countered and shamed relentlessly until even those without shame begin to feel it. We’re beyond toleration.”

He’s not the only one to express this sentiment. Others, including public health officials, also have blamed allegedly irresponsible behavior for the spread of the virus.

An example at the national level could be seen at the news site Politico, which reported that a White House task force concluded the new surge can only be minimized by a “significant behavior change of all Americans.”

Back in Michigan, three weeks ago, the state’s senior medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said, “We are potentially looking at some of the deadliest most grim days of this entire pandemic ahead of us if we don’t collectively change our behaviors.”

According to WILX, on Oct. 29, Marcus Cheatham, health officer of the Mid-Michigan Health Department said, “We’ve had weeks and weeks of messaging on that subject and we haven’t seen the behavior change. I’m really at my wits end as a public health official.”

Some of the harshest critics of the alleged irresponsible behavior have made themselves notorious by violating their own mandates.

On the other side of the Detroit River, in Windsor, Ontario, the government announced it was going “from a position of potential education to one of definite enforcement,” according to CTV News Windsor. The city begin directing law enforcement agents to issue citations to businesses and individuals seen not following COVID-19 safety plans.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens called on Nov. 19 for a zero tolerance approach to those breaking COVID-19 rules. But a photo published by the media showed that just hours earlier, Dilkens was one of seven people gathered at a restaurant table, even though the maximum number allowed under Ontario’s COVID-19 regulations was six.

As Windsor promotes a zero tolerance approach, Michigan’s state government has urged residents to report neighbors and others who may be violating its mandates. In press releases, officials have advised them on how to report alleged violations so authorities can investigate.

These are just the government policies and behaviors the ACLU warned against in 2008. From that report:

“On the other hand, effective, preventive strategies that rely on voluntary participation do work,” the ACLU wrote then. “Simply put, people do not want to contract smallpox, influenza or other dangerous diseases. They want positive government help in avoiding and treating disease. As long as public officials are working to help people rather than to punish them, people are likely to engage willingly in any and all efforts to keep their families and communities healthy.”

“Too often, fears aroused by disease and epidemics have justified abuses of state power. Highly discriminatory and forcible vaccination and quarantine measures adopted in response to outbreaks of the plague and smallpox over the past century have consistently accelerated rather than slowed the spread of disease, while fomenting public distrust and, in some cases, riots.”

The report from the civil liberties group stated, “As a result, instead of helping individuals and communities through education and provision of health care, today’s pandemic prevention focuses on taking aggressive, coercive actions against those who are sick. People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.