The View From Here: COVID – rights, freedoms and law

Volodymyr Kish.

The COVID crisis of the past two years has had a profound impact on the lives of people worldwide. It has greatly disrupted normal life, claimed millions of lives, placed great strain on our medical and health systems, sharply curtailed economic activity, and forced governments to take drastic action to control the spread of the virus and its consequences.

It has also brought out the best and the worst in people. Although most people in Canada and throughout the world have cooperated with government authorities in complying with the emergency measures that have been mandated, a vocal and not insignificant minority have resisted vaccination, masking and social distancing requirements on the grounds that these are infringements on their individual rights and freedoms. This kind of attitude and behaviour may appear to have some superficial ideological basis, but in truth, it only demonstrates a lack of real understanding of the basic foundations of modern societies, especially when it comes to the fine balance between rights and freedoms on the one hand, and responsibilities and duties on the other hand, that has evolved over the course of time as human civilization has developed and matured.

The essence of living in organized societies as we do, is that we knowingly and responsibly consent to live according to a well-defined set of rules or laws that govern our day-to-day lives. Our rights and freedoms are not unlimited. Our constitution, Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our established legal codes define the extent to which we can exercise our rights and freedoms, as well as our obligations to live in harmony and peace with our fellow human beings. The reality is that, through the mechanisms of our governments and legal systems, we impose certain limitations and restrictions on people’s behaviour towards the goal of ensuring stable, just and successful societies. In simple terms, my individual rights and freedoms end when they start to impose or put at risk the rights and freedoms of other individuals.

My right to own and operate a car for instance, is constrained by the fact that I have to demonstrate a certain set of skills and knowledge to obtain a license to drive, that I can only drive when I am sober, that the vehicle meets pollution control standards, that I have to obey traffic laws governing where I can drive, the maximum speed I can drive at, and when I have to yield the right of way to other drivers. My right to smoke if I so choose, is limited to doing so in my own private space; I cannot smoke in public spaces where my second-hand smoke poses a health risk to others in that same space. My right to play music can only be exercised when it is done at a volume and in a place where the sound will not disturb the peace and tranquility of others. In Ontario, my children can only attend school if they have been vaccinated for tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox. All these measures have been developed and enacted into law so as to assure that we can live together in an orderly, safe, healthy and harmonious manner.

Anti-vaxxers often claim that being required to show proof of vaccination infringes on their right to keep their personal health information and records private. This is a red herring. When you are stopped by a traffic cop, you are legally required to show your driver’s license, insurance and proof of ownership. When you are young and go to a bar, you are required to show proof of age in order to be able to order and consume alcoholic beverages. In Ontario, when you go to a doctor, clinic or hospital, you are required to show proof of your health insurance coverage (OHIP card). When you enrol your kids in a school, you have to show that they have received all their required vaccinations.

The right to privacy is not absolute. To live responsibly and successfully in our society requires that we sacrifice absolute rights and freedoms in favour of a balance between rights and responsibilities that ensure the greater good for the greatest number. This balance is enshrined in our constitution, laws and legal system.

To be sure, every citizen has the right to agree or disagree with the laws and rules that have been set up that govern our lives. However, they do not have the right to disobey them. If they want them changed, they are free to lobby their elected representatives and work within the political system to have them changed. Until they are changed however, every citizen has the responsibility to obey and follow the established rule of law. If they do not agree to do so, then they are not entitled to the benefits and privileges of the societies and countries that they live in.