We hear a lot about people protesting mask and vaccine mandates these days.  Their chief complaint is they feel their “personal freedom” is being stolen.

It is particularly troubling to see the significant numbers of health workers, teachers, fire fighters, and police who are pushing back against vaccine and mask mandates.  Since their jobs are based on serving the public, they should be the most highly conscious how their personal freedoms are bound by the public good. But unfortunately, those crying the loudest have raised themselves above the public good, betraying our public trust.

“Personal freedom” as defined by the Miriam Webster Dictionary:  “freedom of the person in going and coming, equality before the courts, security of private property, freedom of opinion and its expression, and freedom of conscience subject to the rights of others and of the public.”

“Personal liberty” is similarly defined by Webster as:  “the freedom of the individual to do as he pleases limited only by the authority of politically organized society to regulate his action to secure the public health, safety, or morals or of other recognized social interests.

In both cases, “personal freedom” and “personal liberty” are limited by its effects on the rights of others. So even if you want to express your personal freedom by killing somebody, that would be a gross violation of their personal right to live.

Can we sympathize with these folks who might just be acting out in frustration with the pandemic? We are all tired of the pandemic. We could go for days talking about what we have gone WITHOUT because of the pandemic. But why have mask/vaccine mandates become the last straw for folks frustrated with pandemic disruptions in all of our lives?

Demonstrators calling for Gov. Gavin Newsom to end the stay-at-home orders during a protest at the State Capitol in 2020. (Associated Press)

Why is it so hard to understand that if you don’t want to kill those around you — you have to go through some discomforts and infringements on your personal freedoms?

This is all happening at a time when we are confronted with disinformation of all kinds. Wikipedia documents disinformation campaigns that the U.S. government launched during the 1950s Cold War. In places like Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya, the CIA got fictitious articles placed in local newspapers to sway local public opinion in favor of U.S. interests. Donald Trump launched his own disinformation campaign onto the American people in order to dredge up confusion and division on COVID-19 and American democracy itself.  Trump cohort Steve Bannon said, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” (Michael Lewis, “Has Anyone Seen the President?,” Bloomberg, Feb. 9, 2018)

Unfortunately, people of color, who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, have a different story to tell when it comes to vaccines. Instead of talking about their loss of personal freedoms, which in many cases, is more limited — their response gets weighed down by the history of medical experimentation on colored peoples. The U.S. has a long history of human medical experimentation that predates the Nazis (1933) and the Japanese military (1937).

In an article by Ada McVean published in January 2019 (McGill: Office for Science and Society), we learn that the Tuskegee experiment on African American men was started in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). In 1947, the Nuremberg Code was written to universally condemn medical experimentation on humans without their full knowledge and consent. And in 1947, penicillin became the standard treatment of syphilis, even though 399 men in the study were prevented from getting treated. The Tuskegee study was taken over by the Center for Disease Control, which was actively involved until as late as 1969. It was finally reported on by New York Times whistle-blower Peter Buxton in a front-page article of Nov. 16, 1972, that the study had finally ended:

It was in these moments that the Tuskegee study’s true nature became clear. Rather than simply observing and documenting the natural progression of syphilis in the community as had been planned, the researchers intervened: first by telling the participants that they were being treated (a lie), and then again by preventing their participants from seeking treatment that could save their lives. Thus, the original basis for the study — that the people of Macon County would likely not seek treatment and thus could be observed as their syphilis progressed — became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We know all about evil Nazis who experimented on prisoners. We condemn the scientists in Marvel movies who carry out tests on prisoners of war. But we’d do well to remember that America has also used its own people as lab rats. Yet to this day, no one has been prosecuted for their role in dooming 399 men to syphilis. (

Birth control pills were tested on Puerto Rican women from 1946-1949, before spreading their general “use” (further experimentation) on the U.S. population of women. U.S. prisoners and American Jews were used as test subjects, along with people in Guatemala, Uganda, and Nigeria for U.S. pharmaceutical corporations. 

Tuskegee complicates the anti-vaccine response by the African American community. But some survivors of the Tuskegee study have recently begun urging people to get the COVID vaccine, explaining the differences between the Tuskegee experiment and today’s pandemic. Jeroslyn Johnson published an article on June 30, 2021 titled “Tuskegee Experiment Relatives Promoting COVID-19 Vaccine in New Ad Campaign.” She quotes Omar Neal, a 63-year-old nephew of former Tuskegee subject Freddie Lee Tyson: “I want to save lives. I didn’t want people to use Tuskegee and what transpired there as a reason for not taking the vaccine.’’ (

In an age of disinformation, it’s perhaps an act of desperation grabbing on to personal truths at a time when larger truths are lacking. But are we only made to think these larger truths don’t exist — larger truths that can uplift our miserable human condition?

Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired photojournalist. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at:

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