Not many Americans – and certainly not their current president – know that the motto of one of their states, Missouri, encapsulates the dramatic events when the health of a nation is at stake: Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto means that the health of the people should be the supreme law. This principle was enunciated by none other than Cicero in his De Legibus.
In the light of this maxim, scientists in Europe called the coronavirus a pandemic weeks before the World Health Organization decided to do so. The United States had time to prepare for it but unfortunately did little about it and just waited while its president basically called it “not a big deal.” In the meanwhile, the coronavirus spread so fast globally that people everywhere became frightened by its pandemic proportions. That “Esto” used by Cicero was meant as a future imperative and as stern advice to present and future leaders.
Through the ages, there has been a spirited discussion about the applicability of Cicero’s maxim but all legal minds agree that it represents a doctrine of political necessity that in times of crisis may justify extraordinary action. Which brings up the question in our troubled days: why did the United States lag behind European countries in taking extraordinary action?
After China, where the disease originated while its strongly autocratic regime tried to cover it up, the European countries found themselves on the front line of the struggle to contain the pandemic. Initially, Italy was the hardest hit and its social and economic effort engaged the whole country to an extent that recalled the tragic days of World War II.
Just one example of the severity of the measures adopted by the government is that persons who violate the stringent rules of behavior can be punished with arrest up to three months and a fine up to 206 euros. Just as in Italy, the Spanish government has decreed that citizens will not be allowed to leave their homes except for impelling reasons such as the purchase of food and medicines or for medical visits. The bottom line is that several million Europeans are “in jail,” as a newspaper described the situation. The coronavirus does not respect borders and the contagion continues its inexorable march upwards.
The fundamental aspect of the war against the deadly virus is the sense of responsibility that unites governing authorities and the people. As a result, the quotient of approval for Premier Conte in Italy is up to 62 percent. He is not the only European leader to take full responsibility for his decisions. The whole of Europe is united in an aggressive and well coordinated reaction to the spread of the virus. The good news is that the legislative efforts in the majority of member states of the European Union will prove to be long lasting.
The coronavirus has sent a potent warning to the governments of the world that the public health – the salus of the Romans – must be protected above all and that guarantees must be offered to all citizens in being able to face the emergencies. Unlike President Trump, who has repeatedly tried to deflect the blame for the testing fumble, Premier Conte and his Spanish colleague Pedro Sanchez, have never downplayed the outbreak, and have mobilized public opinion and forced through the recourse to drastic measures. Most importantly, they have taken responsibility for their citizens’ salus, just as Cicero exhorted. There is hope for their future and for that of their countries.