This was the most historic Easter that any of us have ever lived through, but for all the wrong reasons. For the first time in our history, the majority of Americans were legally barred from worshipping. Governors across the country have discovered that the word “non-essential” is a magical elixir that grants them unlimited power. All they need to do is declare a thing “non-essential,” and they will have the authority to shut it down indefinitely, upon penalty of imprisonment. It’s as simple and easy as that, apparently.
One Mississippi cop was rather blunt about it as he broke up a drive-in Easter service in Greenville. To be clear, these were people who gathered in a parking lot, in their cars, with the windows up, to celebrate the holiday. There was no plausible chance of any contagion being spread. But the gathering was descended upon by law enforcement in any case because, as the cop explained to an understandably infuriated pastor, “your rights are suspended” by “order of the governor.” Who knew that “governor” was another word for “emperor”?
The Emperor of Kentucky took things a step further. He instructed his law enforcement agencies to record the license plate numbers of anyone who commits the crime of going to church. Their information will be logged and registered, and the entire house will be forced into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Anyone who fails to obey this command will be subject to “further penalties.”
This brings me to a rather important point that many of us, myself included, have too often overlooked. The word “quarantine” does not mean what the media and certain governors want us to think it means. According to the department of Health and Human Services — and this definition is consistent with what you’ll find in any dictionary — a quarantine “separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.” Isolation, on the other hand, “separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.”
It is true that state governments have the authority to take these measures, as well they should. And I am fully in favor of COVID-19 quarantines and isolations. But that is precisely what most state governments are not doing. In the Kentucky example, those people who are caught going to church are being put under a punitive house arrest, not a quarantine. The government has no reason to think that any of them have been exposed to anything. It’s not as though someone with a confirmed case attended the service, or that Kentucky is a hotspot teeming with the virus. A quarantine is only a quarantine when people who have been exposed — or who have a high likelihood of having been exposed — are temporarily isolated. This is not that, and so we need a different term. House arrest seems closest to the mark, although, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, that term technically means “court ordered confinement to one’s own home.” What do we call it when the governor orders the confinement? Mass extra-judicial house arrest?
As of this morning, Kentucky had fewer than 2,000 confirmed cases of the virus and fewer than 100 deaths. Those numbers are not nearly high enough to assume that every person who attends a church service must have been exposed. Now, you might argue that there could be many more cases than testing has so far indicated. Perhaps so. But if that’s true, then the death rate is probably exponentially lower, which undermines the case for quarantines. So it seems that either way — if there are only a few cases or if there are a great many — the argument for calling these house arrests “quarantines” is, at best, extremely weak.
The same applies for most states across the country. We all talk about how we are in quarantine, but we use the term in a very colloquial way, often without knowing that we’re using it that way. In reality, because the vast majority of the people locked down are healthy and as far as we know haven’t been exposed to the virus, we cannot use the word to describe our situation. Arguably, we are all under a form of house arrest. The media sometimes prefers the phrase “shelter-in-place,” but the section about shelter-in-place orders on the CDC’s website clearly describes an imminent emergency, like a chemical weapons attack or something along those lines, and most of the states currently under lockdown are not in a situation coming anywhere close to that. Indeed, unless we live in New York, Louisiana, or a handful of other hotspots, we have been remanded to our homes not in response to an actual emergency, but to projections and models that warn of a theoretical emergency.
This raises a number of urgent questions, the most urgent of which is this: what is the limitation on the government’s newfound power to lock millions of healthy people in their homes, and drastically curtail their civil liberties — “suspending” them, to use the cop’s phrase — on the basis of predictions? Even if you do not think that our current situation represents an abuse of that power, you must admit that the potential for abuse is immense. And perhaps that’s reason enough to oppose it altogether.