The needs of the many

Why it was wise to wait for stage five

Phase five, the final step in Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 reopening plan, began Oct. 4 and some Nova Scotians seem worried it isn’t much different from previous phases. I remind them, the government’s involvement in our health is based within the ethos of socialized healthcare. The wellbeing of the many should not be left at the mercy of the capable few.

Thomas Paine wrote that government is, in the best-case scenario, “a necessary evil.” And, while I don’t fashion myself much of a libertarian, I think Paine is right. That said, let’s talk about COVID-19 restrictions. The original changes planned for phase five included no more masks, physical distancing or gathering limits as of Sept. 15. Phase five rolled out, instead, on Oct. 4, with masks, gathering limits still in place, but social distancing removed for businesses, services and gatherings. Additionally, gathering limits have relaxed some. Events hosted by businesses, for example, have no gathering limits, while informal gatherings may have 25 guests inside and 50 outside

Phase five but not really

The news of the province’s approval to advance into phase five came on the heels of tree jumping and public intoxication at the inexplicably relaxed gathering of Dalhousie’s annual Homecoming event. 

Students appeared to believe homecoming was long overdue, which to me implies a corollary assumption, these students felt comfortable engaging in phase five activities before it had been announced. 

This could beg the question, are phase five and subsequent phases a justifiable system to have in the first place? Does the government have the right to police gatherings in public spaces?

Your first instinct may be negative, but gatherings during a pandemic are a matter of public health. This makes gatherings business of the state, or province as it were. 

According to data from the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Dashboard, the province ended August with an active case count of 65. By Oct. 1, that number rose to 240 active cases. While it appears the system was working as intended prior to the September spike, October’s numbers suggest the delays in loosening phase five restrictions was wise. 

Our rights, their rights, who’s right?

I think it’s sensible to say the rights of the individual end at the point where other individuals’ rights begin. 

Benito Juarez, Mexico’s 26th president and a national hero for his anti-colonial efforts, believed peace amounts to the respect of other’s rights. This maxim suggests that when a group of students gathers to party during an international public health crisis, the way we did at homecoming, the event cannot be justified due to its infringement of the general population’s right to health and safety.

I firmly believe there are things worth undertaking for the common good and which amount to our benefit. In other words, the government matters, but it matters in the right places. 

The exercise of provincial power to ensure public health in extraordinary circumstances is, even to a staunch critic of big government, a necessary evil. 

A group of people shouldn’t have the right to potentially endanger a whole community on the whim of “overdue” celebrations. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t a matter of student freedoms. 

In the same way that static legislation, such as constitutions, are put in place to protect the rights of the few against the whims of the many, the democratic principles that bound us in shared responsibilities, such as public health, safeguard the wellbeing of us all.

Phase five as a beta 

As far as the slow evolution of phase five, I think the province is right to be cautious. 

I, for one, welcome the current state of phase five. After everything we’ve been through to get here, we shouldn’t take for granted the new freedoms we’ve won. 

The rigorous process we undertook as a province to reach the end of our reopening plan was successful because of an abundance of caution, now is not the time to no longer be cautious. 

Phase five is an optimistic note on our journey to a post-pandemic Halifax. Of course, I wish we had more freedom this year. There’s a lot to catch up on. But I believe the cost of our time in isolation was worth the chance to walk across campus this morning and see it full of students, bustling with life. A lot of people less fortunate and less careful won’t experience the same privilege this semester. 

It is precisely because we were consistently cautious, that we get to enjoy each other’s company and the immense benefits of an in-person education.

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L. A. Iturriaga