The Corner

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

I wrote yesterday about Kaci Hickox, the Maine nurse whose self-sacrifice abroad, treating the Ebola-stricken in Sierra Leone, has not translated into nobility back in the States. Via the New York Times:

A nurse who cared for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone defied Maine officials on Thursday morning, leaving her house for a short bicycle ride and setting up a legal fight over a 21-day quarantine ordered by the state.

The nurse, Kaci Hickox, left her house on the edge of Fort Kent just after 9 a.m., biking with her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, down a quiet paved road, followed closely by two police cars and a caravan of reporters.

The couple rode less than a mile, then turned onto a graded gravel trail on a former railroad right-of-way flanked by pines. One police car, which has been posted outside her house for days, followed slowly behind. Ms. Hickox and her boyfriend, wearing jackets in the crisp Maine morning, returned to the house an hour later. . . .

It is not clear how Maine officials will respond. State officials said Wednesday that they would seek a court order to enforce the quarantine if Ms. Hickox left the house.

Hickox’s situation does, no question, raise the timeless question of how to balance liberty and security — in this case, to what degree can the government abridge an individual’s liberty in the interests of public health? That is, always has been, and always will be a question of prudence; there are no formulae for making such a determination. In this particular case, though, it is rather difficult to argue that Hickox’s rights are being unceremoniously trampled (or that forcing Hickox to remain in her house will stimulate widespread government overreach). Ebola is a very nasty disease, and Hickox, having been a medical volunteer in West Africa for a month, is as obvious a potential patient as they come. Individual citizens are sometimes forced to endure inconveniences in the interest of more pressing goals. That is not automatically tyranny; it is usually just the reality of living in a community. When governors start quarantining anyone with a sniffle, then pitchforks will be appropriate.

But there is, along with this philosophical question, a more basic, human one: What about decency? As I wrote yesterday, “When it comes to a disease that liquefies your internal organs and pushes blood out your eyeballs, ‘Better safe than sorry’ would seem a dictum to which everyone could agree.” But Hickox evidently does not. It may turn out that she is Ebola-free, and always has been; she has tested negative so far. That would be good news. But for two more weeks, the risk remains. Has Hickox not considered that maybe, just maybe, it would be advisable to take one for the team just in case? Instead, she has turned herself into a martyr — and now a rebel, violating the state’s quarantine order with élan.

I can sympathize with Hickox’s restlessness, being forced to remain at home despite feeling perfectly spry. But really, the prospect of a government-enforced mandate to stay at home, order in, read, and watch Netflix with one’s significant other seems a far cry from the gulag. In fact, I would welcome it. I could finally catch up on The Last Ship.

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