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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Stampede Of Fear–Panic And The Wisdom Of St Paul In The Time of Corona

A recent article in the Catholic journal First Things expressed the writer’s  dismay at the closing of churches during in the time of the Corona virus.

In truth, I am demoralized by the Catholic Church’s response to what Ephraim Radner calls “the Time of the Virus” …The massive shutdown of everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs. St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear (R.R. Reno)

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The government’s response to COVID-19 has been to shut down the economy – to close industrial, commercial, and public workplaces; to shutter bars, restaurants, and cafes; and to close schools and universities – in an attempt to seal off the population from the virus.  Yet the mortality rate is insignificant among the young and healthy, no more than for common influenza.  Only the elderly, the weak, infirm, and immunologically compromised will die.  Yet rather than focus attention and energy on this high-risk, vulnerable group, government has chosen to characterize the virus as ‘everyone’s disease’.  The jobs, income, and savings of the employed and productive Americans are being lost every day that authorities persist in this universal approach.  The cost to the majority of the population is incalculable, and it may take years if not decades for the economy to recover.

The standard epidemiology-based public health response to an epidemic is to determine its source, isolate and quarantine those most at-risk and likely to spread the disease, and do as much as possible to help them keep as well as possible and out of hospitals where beds and health care are few.  Yet, the United States never learned perhaps the most important lesson from the AIDS epidemic – it was not ‘everyone’s disease’ as the political activists insisted, but a disease focused in the San Francisco gay community and spread via promiscuous and particularly dangerous sex.  Because these activists were able to convince government authorities and public health officials that targeting gay men would exaggerate the already unconscionable prejudice against them, AIDS became an unnecessarily universal, national problem.  Billions of dollars were wasted on ineffective educational efforts; and worse, the fear of contagion became acute.

The severe methods taken to control the Corona virus in the United States – universal shutdowns – has not only been unnecessary, but has sown panic.  Within a few weeks, people went from a reasonable, careful, and judicious approach to preventing illness, to panic and hysteria.  Supermarket shelves have been emptied, hoarding is common, ‘social distancing’ has encouraged suspicion, firearms are being purchased by first-time buyers, and families are becoming stressed by unfamiliar seclusion, and the precipitous loss of life savings.

The response to the epidemic as the First Things article went on to say, is due in large part to a severely imbalance between faith and secularism.  In the early days of the Republic, individual enterprise was encouraged, but as part of a larger cosmic order. The Pursuit of Happiness, Jefferson reminded new Americans, was not a matter of selfish pursuit, but one rooted in community and faith.  Individualism was key to the economic development of the new nation, but not at the expense of others.  Only if communities prospered and were built on mutual respect, and on moral and religious principles could the vision of a grand America be realized. 

Yet these very communitarian and religious principles seem to have been lost.  A sense of moral responsibility to others has been superseded by secular authority.  We could easily survive the Corona virus if older people accepted the responsibility to self-quarantine and to take all measures to protect themselves and those around them from the disease; and if younger people accepted the risk of illness and refused to live in fear.

The response to Corona has shown just how far we have come from the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, the Enlightenment, and St Paul.  Christ’s promise to free us from our bondage to death was profound even if the underlying sentiment of salvation and redemption is not considered.  In earlier days when life was short and death sudden, both were looked at very differently from today. On the one hand, courage, bravery, and honor and death in battle were far better than dying from an infected foot.  A short life expectancy made fear unnecessary and remote.  On the other, as Sartre wrote, only doing good in a short, meaningless world, validated human existence.  Man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”  The burden of such responsibility, Sartre admitted, would not be easy, but it was the only human activity of any worth.  Death was not the horrible finality that it seemed, only an end to either a morally fulfilled or unfulfilled life.

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Young Americans surprisingly are capitulating to the exaggerated demands of government and are willingly self-isolating as the right thing to do even though infection is unlikely and convalescence relatively sure.  Meanwhile such isolation is causing untold hardships to fellow workers, businesses, and industry – the engines of the economy and the sine qua non of social stability and prosperity.  Is not the greater good an American principle? Are not sickness and death part of the equation of doing such good? Is our moral contract with others so limited in scope?

Fatalism and acceptance are two very different philosophical constructs.  Fatalism implies a moral demurral while acceptance implies that individual enterprise must necessarily exist within a moral, social, and spiritual context.  Our fate might be determined, but our actions between birth and death must be accounted for – either to ourselves, others, or to God.

The right, moral, socially ethical, right decision concerning Corona would have been just this – for young people to go about their business unafraid of death; and for older people who are near death, to make one final gesture of doing what is good and right.

There is a moral equation to every important decision.  Despite loud arguments to the contrary, there are indeed such things as fundamental, universal moral principles; and they can never be set aside.  There is a philosophical and spiritual dimension to birth, life, and death and it cannot be dismissed or ignored. Secularism – the belief in a wholly human-engineered progress and a better world – is corrosive and disruptive.  Secularism confers unreasonable and indefensible authority to the State and to the marketplace.  It assumes that dying and death are matters only of morbidity and mortality; that birth is only reproduction; and that suffering – far from its importance to Christian theology – is unnecessary, diverting, and totally removable.

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It may not be too late to push back government’s extremism and irrationality.  The UK has finally changed course, and made a clear and unequivocal commitment to epidemiological reason – focusing on the over-70s as the highest risk group of the population, the one most likely to get seriously ill, to take up valuable bed space in hospitals, and to disproportionately transmit the infection.   Other countries are following suit.

We shouldn’t need such authoritarian policies.  Enough is known already for even the most uninformed to do the right thing; yet, information is not enough.  Without moral grounding – or at least a reflection on Thomas Jefferson and his unflinching optimism about a nation conceived in liberty but surviving only on the basis of moral principles – any such self-generated, reasonable action will be impossible.

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