Joseph Cohen: Preserving liberties during virus (Opinion)

During a disease outbreak, decision makers face the challenge of protecting public health while preserving the liberties that form the foundation of American ideals and our democratic system.

The use of emergency powers during a pandemic can be legitimate for measures grounded in science and when consistent with the need to protect our health, safety and civil liberties. But history teaches that our government is most prone to committing abuses in times of crisis, and we must ensure that broad emergency powers are not misused beyond legitimate needs.

We can be both safe and free. but only if our decision-making is data-driven, transparent, fair and equitable. Lawmakers should be guided by the following standards when making decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Ensure that any measures that limit people’s movements are supported by science and proportional to the threat. We should continue to promote voluntary isolation measures as an alternative to quarantines or other mandatory restrictions, to the maximum extent possible and as supported by scientific evidence. To the extent that mandatory measures might truly be needed, individuals must maintain a due-process right to challenge any quarantine order or movement-restricting policy, and mechanisms of appeal should be clear and prompt.

In emergencies, when rights are on the line, it is particularly important to uphold fundamental democratic principles and processes, not succumb to unwarranted changes to police powers or government authority.

  • Keep the public informed with accurate, timely information. Officials should be trusted messengers of vital public health information, grounded in scientific evidence. The best way to maintain that trust and increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance with best practices is to maintain multiple channels of communication that are accessible to all audiences, on- and off-line.
  • Protect vulnerable populations. During an outbreak, public health experts stress the need to help those populations without adequate health insurance or access to regular medical care. Responses to the virus, including testing, must be available to all West Virginia residents, regardless of whether they have health insurance or not.
  • Decision-makers should be particularly protective of two groups that are vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses: people in prisons or jails; and people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Our jails and prisons are overcrowded, and the conditions are often unsanitary — making them potential breeding grounds for a virus like the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Policymakers need to take action immediately to get as many people as possible out of cages. Likewise, policymakers need to take actions that keep others in their homes, such as halting evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic.

  • Pay deliberate attention to equity and nondiscrimination in distribution of resources. In a public health emergency, everyone relies on government information, support and assistance. It is imperative to avoid replicating existing inequities regarding access to health care. As such, we must make sure that resources are made available to all, and communicate to the public about where resources are being directed and why.
  • Help everyone feel confident to get tested. Public health depends on people taking the proper steps, if infected. Immigrants experiencing symptoms might be hesitant to visit a hospital or testing facility, frustrating efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, if they feel targeted because of their immigration status or the status of their loved ones.

Officials should work with immigration officials to declare and publicize health care facilities as safe zones, where no immigration enforcement or questioning will take place. It is in the best interests of all West Virginia residents for everyone to feel confident that they can come forward to be tested.

  • Ensure that people who are sick can afford to stay home. We all face increased risk if people with symptoms of COVID-19 don’t stay home from work for fear of missing a paycheck. Government can play a vital role in encouraging employers to offer sick leave and other supportive measures for workers to keep the community safe.

COVID-19 represents an undeniable threat to human life. But, if history is any guide, it also represents an undeniable threat to our way of life.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Joseph Cohen is the executive director

of the American Civil Liberties Union

of West Virginia.

Funerals for Sunday, March 29, 2020

Clevenger, Ralph - Noon, Hodam Creek Cemetery, Hacker Valley.

Fox, Etta - 2 p.m., Blaine Memorial Cemetery, Cottageville.