Coronavirus and the Golden Rule

The Columbia Study

A study by Columbia University mathematicians estimated that if the United States had instituted aggressive shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements one week before they in fact started, as many as 36,000 lives could have been saved. Had the lockdown and social distancing order been given two weeks earlier, as many as 54,000 souls could still be alive.  

A caveat: The estimates are based on dense mathematical formulae, and the study has not yet been peer-reviewed. This means that it should not be used to guide clinical practice. However, nothing precludes using it to think about future personal practice in dealing with the pandemic, pending peer-review and certification of the accuracy of the mathematics. 

What do I mean?

Suppose the study is correct. We might be tempted to blame leaders who did not impose the restrictions until later, but that is fruitless: The dead are still dead. We face the same dilemma now and will face it for a long time to come: How can we balance opening society with saving lives? If the study is accurate, perhaps it offers some guidance. There may be value in considering stricter social distancing as we slowly reopen society.

 Staying at Home, Keeping our Distance: Two Views

How often do we hear—or say—that we’re tired of being kept at home, tired of keeping our distance and wearing masks in public. There are significant downsides to sheltering in place—a rise in domestic abuse being an important one. Even absent domestic abuse, “lockdown fatigue” remains a problem, and both our mental health and social needs and the perilous state of the global economy argue for some degree of “opening” society and returning to work. 

But there are equally compelling arguments for opening in very tightly focused ways and for maintaining stricter social distancing, masking, and stay-at-home when possible orders. The opening-up of the states is being handled sloppily in most instances, with no states meeting CDC guidelines for doing so. As a result, in nearly all the states, the rate of new cases of COVID-19 have not fallen to the level the CDC considers reasonably safe. Indeed, in many states, if not all, the rate of new cases is steady or increasing. Naturally, given the state of American politics, any discussion of the merits of the two viewpoints—open faster to save the economy and open slower to contain the pandemic—swiftly becomes partisan. Red versus Blue, Trump people versus non-Trump people (the majority). I’d like to take a thoughtful approach.

Flip the Debate

I do not want people who are infectious sneezing on me, coughing at me, singing around me, talking too closely to me, or violating my space (which has expanded to six feet). Nor do I want to do that to them. If people are required to be out and about (by their employer, for example, or because they’re deemed “essential” workers), I want them to have the safest possible conditions to move about or work in, and everyone else does too. 

This is simple justice. What I’m saying boils down to the Golden Rule, the single moral injunction common to all the world’s religions: Treat others as you want them to treat you.

Instead of debating on political (or economic) grounds, what if we think about the vexing question of how to open our economy safely as a question of morality? What if instead of “I’m tired of being at home and I need a paycheck,” we were to say, humbly, “By staying at home as much as possible and wearing a mask and socially distancing when I’m out, I am doing what I can to protect others as I wish to be protected”?

“O, Felix Culpa!”

The loveliest Easter words

For me, the loveliest words in the whole Catholic Easter vigil service come in the long opening proclamation, the Exultet. Those words, in Latin, are “O, felix culpa.” They translate in English as “Oh, happy fault.” Crucifixion, happy?

The point is, without Adam’s sin, the “happy fault,” there would be no crucifixion. And without crucifixion, there would be no resurrection.

Instead of attending Easter service last night, sheltering-in-place, we watched a live staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on YouTube (Andrew Lloyd Webber offered it free for forty-eight hours from Friday through Sunday.) I’d seen the much milder movie version in June 1973, but the stage play was stunning in its intensity and deeply moving in its message. I was swept away by the portrayal of Judas Iscariot, not as a coward and traitor, but as a loyal devotee and faithful adherent to Jesus’s original vision and mission. In the play, he gave Jesus up not because he did not love him, but because he did and could not bear seeing Jesus appear to lose his focus on the poor. During the scene in which Judas recognizes that he will forever bear the blame for Jesus’s death and therefore hangs himself, the words, “O, felix culpa,” came to me. Without betrayal, no death. Without death, no resurrection.

Healing our divisions

As we make our stumbling way through the pandemic, I wonder if someday the coronavirus will be remembered as a “felix culpa,” a happy fault. When we who survive look back, might we see the virus as having healed us of the divisive partisanship, the political and social viruses that beset us now?

If the “cheerleading” continues from the White House podium (Who is cheering? Why do we need a Cheerleader-in-Chief?), might the roughly 40% of us who click “Yes” on the pollster’s question “Do you support President Trump?” start clicking “No”? Might both the right and the left recognize that the fear we carry is common to us all, not a product of ideology? Might we wake to the realization that we value the life and civilization we share? Might we get it at last that being human is more precious than being conservative or liberal, than being White or of color, than being citizens of the U.S. or of Europe or China or Saudi Arabia or Iran?

“Oh, happy fault,” this coronavirus, if it were true. But probably it will not be true.

Our America

More likely, I’m afraid, we seem to be a perennially immature people, unable to put aside our ingrained beliefs and attitudes toward one another and learn the lessons of our catastrophes. Example: The Civil War killed more than 750,000 Americans from the North and the South. One decade later, when Reconstruction was demolished, it was replaced by the ruthless repression of African Americans and reduction of their freedom almost back to slavery status. Jim Crow remained the rule in the South (supported by both overt and covert racism in the North) until the 1960s, and in the last twelve years, White supremacy again rears its ugly and violent head: No lessons learned that could help us survive as one people.

In World War I, 116,708 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded. The surviving soldiers brought home the “Spanish flu,” the worst pandemic in world history. An estimated 675,000 Americans died in the pandemic. No sooner than we’d recovered from both catastrophes, our nation embarked on the Roaring Twenties, a decade-long orgy of conspicuous consumption, financial narcissism, and blindness to the unsustainability of the revelry. For all the fun, though, the plight of African Americans under Jim Crow remained as debilitating as ever, and income inequality was probably even worse in the 1920s than it is today. The Twenties delivered our country to the Crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression: No survival-worthy lessons learned. 

My point is that national catastrophes do not seem to teach Americans much. 

“O happy fault”?

More likely, the combined damage of the coronavirus and the collateral devastation of the economy will likely leave us with a profoundly wounded and different country and world. If we refuse to learn the lesson that we are all in this together, unchecked naïve partisanship and blindfolded ideology will end our time as the great democracy we have sometimes shown we are capable of sustaining. Like Alexander’s Greek empire, like Nero’s Roman empire, like Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish empire, like Henry’s English empire, like Napoleon’s French empire—we will be diminished as a meaningful player on the world stage.

On the other hand, if the pandemic and the fragility of our economy shock us awake so we can see our common stake and our bond as citizens of a country founded upon a noble truth—that we are all equal—then it may be we’ll survive.

 If so, “O, felix culpa.”