'Pandemics are different.' Why this isn't the time to assert your individual health rights

By falsely reframing the need for a collective pandemic response into an individual rights issue, we create the perfect conditions for the pandemic to drag on, writes Dr. Cory Neudorf.

There are times when individual needs and rights take a back seat to the broader needs of society

Anti-vaccine protesters gather at a downtown Calgary park in September. According to Dr. Cory Neudorf, infectious disease outbreaks require less emphasis on the right to make individual health choices. (Jim Brown/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Dr. Cory Neudorf, an interim Senior Medical Health Officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global threat to society that governments and public health experts in various countries have fought in various ways, but all have required citizens to think beyond themselves to fight a common enemy. 

This has been complicated by social media propagating false dichotomies, extremist views and distrust. In some cases, this has been encouraged by politicians, politicizing a health crisis. The end result has been a polarization of the population and the creation of unlikely allies in the name of a perceived encroachment on personal rights and freedoms. 

This creates the perfect conditions for continued spread of COVID-19. 

We don't live in isolation. In a pandemic individual actions don't only result in individual health risks, but affect the entire population's health through increasing transmission. Infectious disease outbreaks can only be managed through a collective public health response, requiring less emphasis on the right to make individual health choices.

A shift in thinking

Most people understand that there are times when individual needs and rights take a back seat to the broader needs of society, and that a balance between individualism and community responsibility is what creates a stable society.

The COVID-19 pandemic started out that way, but a shift in thinking seems to have taken hold, where the recommendations of public health authorities, acted upon by governments, have been interpreted by a sizable minority as an unreasonable infringement on individual rights, out of proportion to the need for collective responsibility. 

Conspiracy theories, lies and pseudoscientific misinformation campaigns are aimed at increasing distrust in science or governments. By falsely reframing the need for a collective pandemic response into an individual rights issue, we create the perfect conditions for the pandemic to drag on and prolong the need for restrictions and mandates. 

Anti-vaccination protesters wave signs at a rally in Calgary in September. Refusing vaccines and protesting short-term mask mandates puts the whole of society at increased risk, according to Dr. Cory Neudorf. (Jim Brown/CBC)

It is recognized that access to common infrastructure, goods and services, such as roads, public education, health and social services, creates a more stable society and should be financed collectively. We all have to abide by rules to ensure our society functions safely and somewhat predictably. Traffic laws, property laws, and criminal laws ensure our individual rights are maintained by imposing restrictions on what others can do that negatively impact us. 

When faced with a common enemy, communities have historically come together for protection. A virus is a common enemy requiring us to act collectively to stop spread. 

If only a few people decide not to participate, we can still defeat the enemy (through high levels of vaccine uptake), but if enough people decide not to take part or to actively assist the enemy (through misinformation and defying orders), we lose the battle and prolong the war with many more casualties.

This pandemic has seen an incredibly fast scientific response to the virus. In an unprecedented time, we have discovered the cause, ways to prevent exposure, provide supportive therapy, and developed effective and safe vaccines. Rather than waiting for decades for the virus to "burn itself out," taking a large proportion of the population with it, we can stop it in a fraction of the time with far fewer casualties. 

Prolonging the crisis

But this is only possible if we continue to act collectively and take advantage of these tools. Refusing vaccines and protesting short-term mask mandates and restrictions may seem to be individual choices only affecting an individual's health, but they put the whole of society at increased risk and prolong the crisis. 

For many health issues, we can rightly assert our own right to assess the risks and benefits of various preventive and treatment options, but pandemics are different. They can only be managed successfully by collective actions at the level of the community and require us to put the health needs of society at a higher level.

Relatively small limits to our individual choice has always been a price we pay for living safely in a community. Bigger threats may require bigger sacrifices for a short time to enable a return to an acceptable level of community safety. 

A community's success depends on people coming together, thinking beyond the individual for a broader purpose. It's always been that way.

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Dr. Cory Neudorf is an interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine, in the department of community health and epidemiology.


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