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Jakub Tolar, CPHO: CO:VID Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation & Discovery

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Life, Liberty, Happiness

July 1, 2020

As an immigrant to this country, the Fourth of July has always had a special significance for me as the celebration of the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This great document set out the ideals (and the grievances) that would lead to one of human history’s most remarkable and enduring experiments in democracy. To someone born in a country that would not achieve democratic elections until near the end of the last century, the freedom so brilliantly and loudly celebrated in July was a shining example and a beacon of hope.

So this year, as our country divides around issues of whether wearing a mask to protect our fellow citizens is a responsibility or a restriction of personal liberty and as we come to grips with the fact that freedom has never been experienced equally by all people in this country, I wanted to look more closely at my own assumptions about this holiday. Can I say, “Have a happy Fourth of July!” and have that resonate the same way with everyone?

Not unexpectedly, the answer to that question is complex, and I can only speak from my perspective, so I will share an additional experience of this holiday:

In July 1852, Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery and was (among other accomplishments) a brilliant speaker, was invited to give a talk at a Fourth of July celebration in New York. It is significant to note that this was nearly 13 years prior to the end of slavery in the US, and he opted to speak instead on July 5. Early in his speech (which you can read here or view a reading here), he expressed his admiration for the courage of the signers and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence while acknowledging that they had been imperfectly implemented. He went on to point out: “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. … This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Toward the end of his speech, however, he says: “notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”

I think his words remain relevant and meaningful. Our experiment in democracy as framed in Declaration of Independence may not yet be perfect, but it is still our responsibility to work on it, improve it, and aspire to it.

Lastly, to paraphrase a Spider-Man quote, “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” If you are celebrating this weekend, please remember that COVID-19 is still a critical issue. Remember our friends and colleagues who will be providing care in the most difficult of circumstances over the holiday. Please remember your responsibility to keep them and those around you safe. Your sense of responsibility in complying with measures like avoiding large gatherings, maintaining 6 feet of social space, wearing masks, and washing our hands is showing great results in Minnesota, where we are avoiding the current surges in infection seen elsewhere.

However you celebrate, or don’t celebrate, the Fourth of July, I hope you all stay safe and enjoy the day.

Jakub Tolar, MD, PhD
Campus Public Health Officer (CPHO)

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