Mask-wearing and vaccination have become matters of faith. Of course, even under normal circumstances, some are more law-abiding than others, and there are always those who prefer simply to disobey whatever rules are imposed on them. But with the COVID pandemic, it has become perhaps more evident than ever that attitudes and behaviours in times of crisis depend on political inclinations. This is true on the level of receptiveness to conspiracy theories, as well as on the extent of trust in governments and experts. Those who, for ideological reasons, dislike the political parties in power, tend to criticize the pandemic-related restrictions imposed on them, and reject vaccines opposed by the parties they identify with. Those prone to crediting conspiracy theories are more likely to become coronavirus and vaccine sceptics than those who do not. And those with high levels of mistrust towards authorities in general will be reluctant to accept vaccines.
In addition, sensationalist and partisan media reports and politicians who use the virus to score political points against their opponents do not help the situation.
Virtue-signalling excesses such as people wearing masks while sitting alone in their cars or the US president masking up for an online video conference with world leaders also fuel anti-mask sentiments. The obligation to wear a mask imposed on children aged two and above on certain American airlines is also something that is hardly justifiable scientifically, and rightly angers people.
Still, I find it disappointing that some conservative groups and individuals in the West are waging a crusade against lockdowns, vaccination and masking.
In the United States, a considerable portion of Republican politicians and some prominent conservative television personalities, such as Tucker Carlson are juxtaposing individual liberties and mask mandates. They argue that whether one is vaccinated or not is an absolutely private matter, and sometimes even foment doubts about the necessity and effectiveness of vaccination. Similarly, in the UK, a political movement seems to be based entirely on extolling people’s ‘freedom’ as overriding the obligations imposed by an ‘overreaching’ government. Boris Johnson is being criticized on the right for the lockdowns imposed by his government. On Twitter, I saw a video shared and applauded by self-proclaimed conservatives showing the priest of a Polish-Canadian Catholic church yelling hysterically at local police trying to shut down an Easter mass held in contravention of the COVID laws in force at the time.
I find it astonishing that people who self-identify as conservative, even on the more libertarian end of the spectrum, would promote the idea that individual freedom has no limits.
Conservatism, in contrast to leftist ideologies, believes in the autonomy and self-reliance of free individuals. Those individuals, however, belong to communities, small and large, for which they are responsible, and their freedoms extend only as far as the freedom of others. To my mind, conservatism professes that liberty must and can be guaranteed only so long as it coexists with order, and not at others’ expense. The way I see it, those Western conservatives who burn masks and agitate against vaccination place themselves on the same platform as leftist opposition parties in Hungary that criticize whatever defence measure the government introduces. Most recently, the requirement for proof of immunization for people to visit gyms is being attacked. Of course, you do not need to be a conservative, merely possessed of common sense, to be aware of certain basics of the fact, for instance, that the right to health is a fundamental human right, while going to the gym is not. It is therefore the duty of every government to protect people’s lives and health. The rights of those who may asymptomatically be carrying a deadly virus in my view under no circumstances precede the right of others to remain healthy and alive.
The Hungarian conservative government has so far managed to walk a fine line between making sure that our communities are safe and being cautious about infringing upon certain freedoms. It has, for instance, not interfered with church services, and left it to faith communities themselves to decide whether to hold religious gatherings or not. Church leaders in turn have behaved responsibly limiting physical attendance in churches and temples when the epidemic situation made that necessary. Common-sense measures were also introduced, such as exemptions from mask-wearing for small children and people with mental conditions, as well as the exemption of dog-walking from curfew rules. And, luckily, the Hungarian conservative public, as well as, hopefully, many on the other side of the political spectrum appreciate that.
Zsófia Tóth-Bíró, online editor of Hungarian Conservative, Danube Institute research fellow