Two Natural Disasters, Ten Years Apart
This month marks ten years since Irene swept through Newfane, washing away roads, bridges and homes, downing power and phone lines, and leaving behind a mess. And in the face of this natural disaster, residents pulled together to help one another. We held nightly potlucks at Williamsville Hall, where we shared food and news and where we stockpiled donations of essentials for those who lost everything. We set up a phone line and WiFi so those without it could dial back in.
Irene brought us together in the face of disaster. People who lost homes and people who helped out repeated the same thing: If you have to live through a disaster, this is the place to do it. We were overwhelmed with community spirit.
We stockpiled so much social capital in the aftermath of Irene that for at least two years following the storm, we celebrated our community’s resilience with an anniversary parade. But after three or four years, we adjusted to the new landscape with Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant, obliterating not only our native species, but also our memory of them.
We are now in the midst of another natural disaster: Covid-19. This one doesn’t bother with property damage; it sickens and kills, and it’s not confined to Newfane, or even Vermont. It’s global and deadly.
People of Enormous Courage
As with any disaster, there have been people of enormous courage who have stepped up to help others, from grocery-store clerks to healthcare workers, and many unsung heroes in between. And there have been some extraordinary efforts to help neighbors stay safe and stay fed.
But a significant number of people have turned their backs on the community effort to end the pandemic. These are people who find mask mandates an infringement on their personal liberty, and people who won’t get vaccinated because they don’t want anyone – least of all the government – to tell them what to do. I get it. Our health is a private matter, and I don’t like legislators telling me what I can or can’t do with my body, either.
But a pandemic is both a public health event and a natural disaster; Covid-19 is one of the deadliest in our history. Yet Americans are not responding to the pandemic as the natural disaster it is. Instead, we’re falling back on American Exceptionalism, putting individual autonomy ahead of group safety exactly when sacrificing individualism is the only way to shorten the life – and growing death rate – of this pandemic.
People of Thoughtless Entitlement
I have a friend who is unvaccinated. I acknowledge her right to refuse vaccination and even admire her stated willingness to die rather than get the shot. But this friend regularly crosses state lines to visit her ninety year-old mother. She goes to work, shops in the local grocery, cares for her school-aged grandsons and she endangers every single person with whom she comes into contact, family member and stranger alike. So while this friend has a right to risk her own life, does she also have a right to risk ours?
What’s Legal versus What’s Right
This is not a legal question, but an ethical one. There is currently no law that says everyone who can be vaccinated must be; but there is an ethical argument in favor of putting community health ahead of individual autonomy. Ethics are the unwritten rules of societal expectations; they are the moral principles that distinguish right or wrong. Ethics require self-knowledge, compassion and a moral compass in order to negotiate the gray area between what’s legal and what’s right.
As we mark the tenth anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, we’re also coming up on the eighteenth month of the pandemic and yet another spike in community transmission. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can make the health of our community our priority if we each, individually, do the right thing.
This column originally published in The Commons issue #627 (Wednesday, August 25, 2021). This story appeared on page D1.