The great singer-songwriter Paul Simon once expressed the complexity of urban living when he sang that the floor of one apartment was the ceiling of the one below. Specifically, the first verse of his song declares:
“There’s been some hard feelings here
About some words that were said
Been some hard feelings here
And what is more
There’s been a bloody purple nose
And some bloody purple clothes
That were messing up the lobby floor
It’s just apartment house rules
So all you ‘partment house fools
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor
One man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor”
Most of the year, I live in an apartment in Morningside Heights in New York City. I have neighbors above me, below me and next to me. We are mindful of each other’s space and privacy. But we share a collective water system, electrical system, heating system, elevator and building staff. When COVID-19 hit, we stopped sharing elevators and allowed them to pass until an elevator came to us empty. Today, we once again share the elevator, but we all wear masks. Unlike in Paul Simon’s song, we’ve not had any bloody clothes in the lobby or other signs of overt conflict. Each day, we must balance the freedom we exercise behind closed doors with our mutual dependency on resources we share.
If I lived on a quarter-acre or more of land in a private home, my attitude about shared responsibility might be different, but I live in a place where I need to pay attention to the volume of my music because I might wake up a baby sleeping in an adjoining apartment. What does all this have to do with vaccination? I believe nearly all of us should be vaccinated to protect our neighbors and our community.
I understand that some people have medical reasons to remain unvaccinated and they should follow medical advice. I also know that breakthrough infections are possible, but health, like life itself, is always a matter of probability. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected with COVID-19 and less likely to transmit it. When I became eligible to be vaccinated last February, I rushed to get my shot. Yes, I wanted personal protection from COVID-19, but I was more concerned that I could become infected because I was teaching in a classroom and could spread the virus to my spouse, children, granddaughter, friends, and neighbors. I was a little scared about the side effects, but the benefits far outweighed the costs.
All over America, but especially in the more suburban and rural parts of the country, many people are resisting vaccination. When institutions like the one I work for and others started requiring vaccination, people started protesting that mandated vaccination infringed on their freedom. They are correct — it does limit freedom. Just as we are x-rayed at the airport and videotaped at Walmart, our freedom is infringed upon wherever we go. You are not free to drive 100 miles an hour on the highway or make a left turn on a red light. You are not free to scream “fire” in a crowded theatre. In my home city, you are not free to carry a firearm without a difficult-to-obtain permit. In some states, you are free to carry weapons wherever you go, but in a place as crowded as New York, we prefer to let our police protect us with their weapons.
The degree of freedom we have varies by place and politics, but it is never absolute because even in Texas, people have a responsibility to each other. In Texas, the political leadership prefers that people take personal responsibility for their actions and argues that the responsibility to protect our neighbors from COVID-19 should not be required by government. Anti-mandate governors are correct that voluntarily taking personal responsibility is better than compulsion by authority. If a sense of responsibility for the community is not internalized by an individual’s value system, government intervention will not be particularly effective. Unfortunately, not enough individuals took responsibility for preventing the spread of the virus and mandates were needed.
There are times when the needs of the community must take precedence over the needs and even rights of the individual. In emergencies, different rules must apply. I suspect the Governor of Texas does not see COVID-19 as a national emergency. Had he lived in New York in February and March of 2020, he might see the world differently. The sounds from my window day and night back then were punctuated by sirens taking sick people to hospitals where too many of them died. During wars and national emergencies, people are drafted into service and freedom is curtailed to ensure survival. People in New York City do not want to return to the New York of early 2020. If vaccination and masks are required, bring them on.
The exercise of government authority to require vaccination should be viewed as an infringement of personal freedom in the interest of collective security. Here in New York City, our municipal government has mandated vaccination of all its employees but has been more than a little clumsy in implementing the requirement. While the city government could have done a better job implementing the vaccination requirement, the policy remains sound. It comes back to our collective responsibility in a densely settled city. I am especially disappointed when I see police, health care workers and firefighters resisting vaccination since their fundamental job is to protect the public. These folks put themselves in harm’s way with great frequency, so why don’t they see vaccination as simply another tool they possess to protect the public? Vaccine resistance among public health and safety officials is a sad indicator of the breakdown of our sense of community. COVID-19 will not be the last global pandemic we will face; we will either combat these threats as a world community or suffer the pain and loss caused by the constant spread of disease.
Freedom of thought and expression is fundamental to our democracy. Many believe that should extend to freedom to control the substances that are placed in our bodies. In a world with less than a billion people, without global trade and global travel, that might once have been possible. Today, with eight billion people and the constant risk of exposure to viruses that our bodies are not able to fight off, that freedom has become a luxury we cannot afford. Today’s world is more like my apartment building than a suburban home with a lawn and a driveway.
I fear that we are living through a time where we are forgetting about the need to respect each other. I have friends and colleagues who are refusing vaccination and others who refuse to wear masks. Even though I believe their response to this pandemic is selfish, I listen carefully to their arguments and respect their beliefs. I worry that some of their arguments are based on disinformation spread via social media, but some are due to the scientific uncertainty we have all experienced as experts learned more about COVID-19. The polarization of our politics might have been overcome by a collective effort to understand and then combat this virus, but the lack of respect for each other and our institutions led to this fragmented response. Instead of summoning a sense of national purpose, Donald Trump resisted public health measures to energize his base of support during a campaign year. The response was so badly mishandled that even the promise of a more measured approach helped elect his opponent. Joe Biden has struggled to establish a collective response but is thwarted by governors, other elected officials, and pundits who continue to politicize the pandemic.
Mistrust seems to be contagious. Among Democrats in Congress, it is delaying the enactment of about $3 trillion of spending on infrastructure, environmental and social programs. Republicans are united in their opposition to these policies, even the programs they might wish to support. Symbolic position-taking and appeals to a narrow base of support have replaced nearly every effort to build consensus. Our global economy is complex, interconnected, and vulnerable. COVID, climate change, toxic substances, fire, drought, floods, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and corruption threaten our prosperity, security, and way of life.
The vaccine that some Americans are unwilling to use is beyond the reach of over a billion of our planet’s people, many of whom desperately want it. We need to exercise our freedoms with a sense of responsibility, mindful of our obligations to our neighbors, our nation, and the world. The alternative that stands starkly before us is division, conflict, chaos, and the demise of our democracy.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.