Mike Zielinski

Mike Zielinski

As we all know only too well in these unfortunate times, there are many aftershocks emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of them is a growing tug-of-war between civil liberties and governmental controls designed as sandbags to stem the tide of illness and death.

Historically, civil liberty has been a benchmark adhesive in American life — a rock-hard principle strong enough to drive in railroad spikes. If not born in America, civil liberty certainly was mined from American soil.

Now the fight to contain the coronavirus is mangling the algebra of civil liberty.

New civil liberties dilemmas have emerged for state and federal governments trying to protect public health without unconstitutionally limiting individual rights.

No other time in our history has our country had to balance individual liberties with community interests on such a large scale during a national crisis.

Civil libertarians say governments have the power to take extraordinary measures to stop the pandemic, but the power is not without limits.

Some conservatives are fueling protests against coronavirus lockdowns, rationalizing that the pandemic has caused an overreaction of fear and an overreach of government power.

What transpired Monday, April 20, in Harrisburg exemplifies this. Hundreds of protesters – standing close to each other and not wearing masks – lined the streets advocating for the loosening of Pennsylvania’s strict coronavirus stay-at-home order imposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

This despite polls showing that most Americans support restrictions meant to combat COVID-19.

Civil libertarians say steps to prevent the spread of the virus should be weighed in terms of whether they are effective and lawful.

"The balance between civil liberties and safety changes in the context of a pandemic, but civil liberties and civil rights don't get thrown out the window," David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNN.

An overriding concern by some is whether the cure becomes worse than the disease and whether some measures become long-term, such as any new government surveillance and tracking.

Legal experts say that broad measures that are reasonable and apply to everyone, for example shelter in place requirements, are generally lawful. But when government begins to target certain individuals or businesses, there should be ways to ensure a hearing and due process of law.

Quarantines have been imposed over the centuries, but longstanding case law dictates that they should not be unreasonable or arbitrary.

With the pandemic and shutdown orders/ travel restrictions likely remaining a reality for some time, it is difficult to predict the depth of this new chapter of tensions regarding civil liberties.

Divergent paths sometimes lead to a puzzling dead end.

We await the denouement.

Mike Zielinski, a resident of Berks County, is a columnist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

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