Free to be Foolish

Opponents of Cooper’s pandemic restrictions are within their rights, but still wrong

Note: This is the fifth installment in a series on the Coronavirus pandemic. Links to previous articles are at the end of this post.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America.


RALEIGH, N.C. — The leader of the North Carolina State Senate, the lieutenant governor, and hundreds of North Carolinians (and, one presumes, imported protesters) have all exercised their First Amendment rights protesting societal restrictions imposed by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

While they are within their rights to protest Cooper’s restrictions, they couldn’t be more wrong. Reopening society must be based first and foremost on evidence that public health will not be adversely affected when reopening.

There is no such evidence. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise — social distancing, sheltering-in-place, closing businesses and schools and limiting gatherings to just a few people — have arguably worked. I say arguably because the outbreak has not been as dire as predicted in some areas of the nation. Where the outbreak is severe, it is in generally densely populated areas. So, one can hypothesize, if not conclude, that the restrictions are working.

Situational Awareness

So, it is true that there is still much that scientists, epidemiologists, physicians, nurses and other caregivers do not yet know about the Coronavirus and the resultant disease, COVID-19. However, this lack of complete knowledge is exactly the reason why Cooper first put the restrictions in place. Not enough has changed in the situation to justify a loosening of restrictions.

Those in the emergency management and public health sectors understand that all decisions flow from Situational Awareness. While we certainly know more than we did a month ago, we still do not know the transmission rate, the true mortality rate, comorbidities that make people more vulnerable to the disease, and all the ways in which the disease is transmitted. We also have no vaccine, are in the early stages of experimental treatments, are unsure of the effect that warmer temperatures will have on it, and have only begun effective epidemiological tracing. And, of course, our Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) has proven to be overwhelmingly inadequate for this scenario.

In short, there is more we don’t know than we do know. But what we do know justifies the current restrictions. The rapid expansion of the disease in the United States is not yet unabated. So, those pressing the governor are simply mistaken — or political opportunists taking advantage of concerted, national efforts to politicize this disaster to win elections in November.

According to Charlotte NPR station WFAE, “Republican Senate leader Phil Berger sent North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper a letter Wednesday asking why the governor has not laid out a ‘step-by-step’ plan to reopen the economy. He then said, ‘the fact that no such plan has been publicized may lead to a reasonable conclusion that no such plan exists.’”

Berger could not be more wrong. It’s his right to say what he wants, but he has demonstrated that he does not understand — or care — how a disaster should be managed. There are four phases of Emergency Management — Preparedness, Mitigation, Response and Recovery. At this point we are taking mitigation steps — such as closures and social distancing and first receivers and first responders using PPE. Obviously the response (patient care, epidemiology, etc.) is ongoing and will continue for an indefinite period of time. The reason the governor doesn’t have a “step-by-step” plan to reopen the economy is because that is recovery. If anybody thinks we are in the final phases of the pandemic, then that person is in denial or ignorant. Hence, recovery, which is what Berger and his allies are calling for, cannot occur now. 

The Precautionary Principle must guide us

So, while we all want recovery, to move to that phase now violates a fundamental principle of emergency management and public health — the Precautionary Principle.

Cooper is seemingly operating by the Precautionary Principle, which according to the Science & Environmental Health Network, asserts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

At this point, the science is simply against Berger’s wishes. To be a proponent of lifting restrictions is to propose raising “threats of harm to human health.”

WFAE further reported, “Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest – who is challenging Cooper in November – also criticized Cooper Wednesday and said the state ‘must have a sense of urgency to open.’” His attitude is horribly cavalier. The state should have one concern — a sense of urgency to protect the public health. It is instructive that Forest revealed his views now. We do not need another science denier in high office.

He and his allies are free to be foolish. But they are wrong. The fundamental principles of emergency management and public health simply do not support their views. Fortunately, we have a governor that understands that. 

© Michael M. Barrick, 2020. Barrick holds a post-graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. He is trained as a paramedic and EMT instructor and has served two hospitals as Safety Officer/Emergency Management Coordinator. He has certifications in the National Incident Management System, Hospital Incident Command System, and HAZMAT. He directed the emergency response at Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory, N.C to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-10. Social distancing photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash; Recovery photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash; Lockdown photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash.


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