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It’s Time to Disobey Covid Mandates

Thomas Aquinas tells us that laws contrary to the human good are not only false laws, but acts of violence against the human person which can be disobeyed.

In early September, approximately one month after the re-imposition of the indoor mask mandate in Washington, I walked into the Trader Joe’s on Capitol Hill without a mask. As expected, I was the only person maskless in the entire store. Yet, besides this detail, the experience was surprisingly uneventful. Not once did an angry shopper berate me for my insensitivity, nor was I ever asked to put my mask on. I checked out, huffed my grocery bag over my shoulder, and left. No harm, no foul.

How will the pandemic end? This is the question that has plagued us from the start. In the meantime, countless measures have been implemented as surefire ways to return us to normal: lockdowns, mask mandates, stimulus checks, travel bans, online school, and the “indomitable” vaccine. Nineteen months on, however, the results have been slight. Most mandates are still in place, the pandemic is still ongoing, and the question still goes very much unanswered.

Yet such failures have not stopped the ruling elite from establishing an end goal: virtual elimination of the virus. Indeed, whether explicitly or implicitly, all Covid-related legislation has been ultimately ordered toward this objective. As recently stated by Dr. Anthony Fauci himself: “We want to do better than just control. We want to be on the brink of elimination.

Australia and New Zealand have manifested this most explicitly—locking down over single new Covid-19 cases—but as Fauci’s words show, America is not far off.

Herein lies the problem: the total elimination of Covid-19 is simply impossible. Like other perennial respiratory viruses, Covid-19 spreads too rapidly and mutates into new variants too frequently to eliminate in any lasting way. This is nothing new—we deal with the seasonal flu every year. And though the coronavirus is slightly more contagious than its cousin, the fact remains that the two possess similarly low mortality rates for the majority of the population, particularly for children.

Therefore, reason would say we ought to treat Covid-19 as we have other similar diseases: with moderate precaution. This pandemic, however, has radically changed the mode by which we act. Where once the arrival of flu season caused little panic, Covid now necessitates hysteria: quarantines, contact tracing, city-wide mask mandates, even vaccine passports. Countries lock down over single new infections. Children are barred from in-person school for weeks if wind is caught that they might have been exposed. Employees are forced into a grave choice: get the vaccine or get fired.

Thus the new precedent is set: eradication or bust. And since we know that Covid-19 will never truly vanish, we now have our answer to how the pandemic ends.

It won’t.

If we are to follow the precedent to its logical conclusion, all mild perennial viruses—be they flu, Covid-19, or something else yet unknown—now merit no less than the shutdown of society. Simply put, there is no limiting principle here. We have handcuffed ourselves and given away the key.

Here we return to my jaunt at Trader Joe’s and what I believe to be the only path left: disobedience. We simply cannot continue a begrudged compliance in the hope that normalcy will one day return.

Note that this call for disobedience is neither a condemnation of public health initiatives en masse, nor a libertarian protest based on “rights” or “individual liberty.” I doubt I would be advocating against strict health measures if the Black Death were to resurrect itself on American shores. Instead, it is a reaction based on the situation at hand, a proportionate response to a precedent bereft of justice and contrary to human flourishing.

Patience and toleration will no longer cut it. Many, as I once did, think of the mandates as something worth enduring—a noble sacrifice for the sake of a future return to normalcy. We now know this to be a fruitless task. No mandate will ever eliminate Covid-19, and therefore no mandate will ever end the pandemic. Thus we must spurn the mandates themselves.

Civil disobedience is not a radical new concept, but rather one engrained in the western tradition. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas describes unjust laws as those laws contrary to the human good, and argues that such laws are not only false laws, but so too acts of violence against the human person which can be disobeyed.

Indeed, current mandates represent an unequivocal contrast to the human good. Over the course of the pandemic they have emptied churches, closed businesses, handicapped schools, and separated family members. They have forced man, properly a social creature, to isolate himself in his home and detach from his community. Through mask mandates, they have re-defined the human person as a pathogen to be avoided rather than a being to be welcomed—and all this for the sake of a mild, perennial disease.

Therefore, it is not only right that we disobey, but necessary—even just.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the virtue of prudence. To be sure, you ought not cancel your family’s Christmas gathering or that visit to your grandparents because you refuse to wear a mask on the plane. Likewise, do not leave your family to starve because you were fired for rejecting the vaccine. Aquinas notes that disobedience should be foregone, if necessary, to avoid scandal. Certainly, charity demands some things be more important than politics, and perhaps this presents a weakness in the argument.

Nevertheless, I believe there exist abundant ways—subtle yet strong—by which civil disobedience can be prudently practiced in our daily lives.

Start by ditching the mask at restaurants and stores. If you are denied entry, find somewhere else to shop. If you are in lockdown, visit a friend’s house or host a party at your own. Go back to church if you have stopped going. At the airport, try and go maskless in the terminal for as long as possible. The more we say no, the less seriously these mandates will be taken, and the sooner our leaders will realize that their precedent cannot last forever.

You might worry about backlash. Certainly there will be some; achieving the good always requires work and sacrifice. But if my maskless grocery run serves as evidence, there will be far less retribution than you might expect. Nobody sane actually enjoys these mandates, after all. So be public, courageous, and consistent. Your fortitude could be just the thing that inspires others to do the same.

Indeed, the end of this pandemic depends on it.

Samuel D. Samson is a writer working in Washington D.C. An alumnus of the University of Texas, Sam’s work focuses on the intersection of contemporary politics with St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory and classical teleology.