. . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence has no legal authority. But its moral authority to Americans is, I hope, indisputable. The purpose of governments, it states, is to safeguard everyone’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To do so entails laws. The Declaration charges King George with having “refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” “forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance,” and “refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people.” Laws are necessary—as a means, not an end.
What changes when focus shifts from law enforcement (a means) to public safety (the end)? Instead of counting tickets or arrests, the measure of effectiveness becomes accidents averted, conflicts deescalated, homes and neighborhoods at peace. Officers need to know the law, both to stay within it and to protect the rights of everyone. If a law doesn’t help secure those inalienable rights, the law needs to change.
Like many at risk from coronavirus, I expect to hunker down till we get a vaccine. When will that be? Polio history brings to mind my mother’s saying, there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip.
Approval. Licensing a new vaccine depends on tests to prove it safe and effective. Salk’s polio vaccine was licensed, and boxes of vaccine shipped, the very day field trial results were announced. Though the public acclaimed the rush to market, some scientists thought it reckless.
Manufacture. Working with biologicals is iffy. Two manufacturers of Salk-style vaccine agreed to scale up production to supply every country that didn’t already use it. Technical difficulties kept them from fulfilling the contract on schedule.
Distribution. A vaccine won’t reach you and me the day it leaves the plant. Much depends on supply, priorities, and wild cards beyond human control. When ash from a volcano in Iceland closed European airports, at least 15 million doses of polio vaccine bound for West Africa were grounded in Paris and Frankfurt.
One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.
Adages and idioms are odd things. A saying can take on a life of its own and come to mean the opposite of what it says.
An over-ripe apple emits a musky gas called ethylene as it starts to rot. Other apples nearby absorb the ethylene, which speeds their ripening. They in turn give off ethylene as they spoil. The rot spreads.
Curiously, these days to blame a few bad apples for prisoner abuse or police violence or business corruption is to affirm the innocence of everyone else. Of course the proverb says just the opposite: Let a little rot slip through unhindered, and soon the whole bunch will be rotten to the core.
Children will be paralyzed. Mass immunization can’t happen in a time of social distancing. While vaccination campaigns are tragically deferred, the skills and resources for other polio activities help fight the new pandemic.
Surveillance workers detect cases of both COVID-19 and polio, trace contacts, and transport specimens for analysis. Polio-funded vehicles and phones are at their disposal. Laboratories, data systems, and emergency operations centers set up against one virus are being used against another.
Trusted community members convey basic health messages in urban slums and remote villages. Handwashing instructions save lives in communities where former vaccination teams distributed soap from door to door. Pakistan’s polio hotline doubles as a COVID hotline. Trained communicators respond to rumors and misinformation.
Coronavirus is hard on most of the world. It would be even harder on parts of Africa and Asia if the global movement to eradicate polio hadn’t gotten there first.
How is social shaming different from bullying? Though I find most folks friendly and courteous amid all the anxiety and frustration, social shaming is rampant online or in public spaces. It thrives in the moral certainty that we’re right and they’re jerks.
Does shaming change behavior? Perhaps, with large corporations whose business depends on public image, or people who violate the norms of those they care about. Individuals called out by strangers tend to get defensive, hostile, aggressive, and increasingly blatant. Sometimes someone gets shot.
Remember Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury (1981)? It enjoyed a brief popularity before we decided civil disagreement was a sign of weakness. This relic of a different era outlined a four-step approach to negotiation:
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.