The Ugly Truth Revealed by COVID

Happy winter solstice!  Today is, astronomically speaking, the “darkest” day of the year, a description that takes on a timely relevance as the coronavirus is spreading out of control overwhelming US hospitals from big cities to small towns, and UK scientists have identified a mutation in COVID-19 that makes it more contagious.  The lack of leadership from an absent President pursuing his own fantastical claims of election fraud puts the problem in rather stark relief:  when we act in our own self-interest, the group (in this case cities, states, and the nation) suffers.  COVID-19 has revealed the fatal flaw in the idea, evangelized by conservatives and libertarians, of “rugged individualism.”

Individuals do have a role to play in fighting the spread of the virus.  By now, it should be clear that everyone should be wearing a mask, washing their hands frequently, and keeping their distance from others.  And getting vaccinated.

The wearing of a mask seems like an individual choice, and this is reflected in the reticence of some state and local governments to issue “mask mandates,” not to mention the oft repeated “states’ rights” line about how the Federal government can’t tell individual states what to do.  It is, to me, surprising bordering on hypocritical, how the same people pushing the individual choice and bodily autonomy line are the exact same ones who want laws put on the books to outlaw abortion, effectively making it illegal for a woman to exercise individual choice and autonomy over her own body.

Look at the case of Florida, where the governor has banned cities and municipalities from enforcing fines and penalties for non-compliance with mask mandates:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has extended an order that bans localities in the state from enforcing mask mandates through fines and penalties, despite the measure being seen as one of the simplest and most effective government measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, and even as data shows the strain on the state’s health care system continuing to worsen.

Gadsden flag

The Gadsden flag is a historical American flag that dates back to the 18th century used in the United States as a symbol for protection of individual liberties and disagreement with government intervention; it consists of a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike on a yellow field, beneath which are written the words “Don't Tread on Me.”  With Gadsden flags hoisted in the background, protesters took to the streets this Summer and Fall to demand the government stay out of their lives, claiming they could take care of themselves and didn’t need the government to tell them what to do.  Democrat and Republican leaders alike got the message — this peculiarly American fetish for individualism helps explain why so many have resisted government mandates on masks and stay-at-home orders leaving the American people to fend for themselves.

Jen Kates, Director of Global Health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said, “It’s a structural issue.  Systemic challenges in the United States — that predate the pandemic but have gotten worse [during the pandemic] — lead to the situation we’re in.”  And the situation we are in is grim.  Americans pride themselves on their individualistic and libertarian qualities — what Dr. Anthony Fauci described as an “independent spirit in the United States.”  That creates an innate resistance, among the American public and its leaders, to look at problems in a collective over an individual manner.  COVID-19 has shown us this individualistic approach doesn’t work well for public health; the alternative to not taking collective action is more death — countries that have done the best against COVID-19, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Germany, all approached the issue collectively, using government to test and trace infections, and, when necessary, close down to stop the spread.

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, US Supreme Court Case No. 20A87, Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett ruled 5-4 three weeks ago in favor of the individual American’s right to choose to ignore government mandates (in this case that of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state of New York prohibiting large public gatherings) so they may congregate in large groups in churches to worship God.  My issue with this wrongly decided ruling is not that it allows Catholics in Brooklyn to go to Mass and worship their god, but that it elevates an individual freedom (of religion) over a collective good (public health).  What about the right(s) of the neighbors of Brooklyn Catholics not to get sick and die?  I do not see how an individual freedom can be morally justified when it adversely affects the group.  Not all the residents of Brooklyn are Catholic, but they are all potentially exposed to a virus that can kill them or effect their economic well-being because our law upheld the ludicrous notion that "religious freedom” is more important.

Kant’s categorical imperative, which formed the basis of his deontological morality, said that you should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Immanuel Kant).  While some would argue the contrary, I see Kant’s formulation as elevating the applicability of what is right to the broadest audience (universal applicability) to being the ethical course of action, making me more of a utilitarian along the lines of Hume, Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.  Utilitarianism gets a bad rap, reduced as it often is to the sophomoric “the ends justifies the means;” properly understood, it forms the basis of the theory of the greater good, and therefore the social welfare state and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity, such as we are facing at this moment due to the pandemic.

The once in a lifetime crisis the coronavirus presents reveals a structural problem with America.  One advantage some countries had (and have) as the pandemic worsens is stronger social safety nets, funded at a level that makes them national priorities — guaranteeing people some income and, crucially, healthcare (which is often tied to insurance obtained through employment in this country, rather than treated as a right).  So while British workers could rely on some significant government assistance even if they lost their jobs, and of course their National Healthcare System (NHS), Americans could claim no such certainty.  The twin-headed boogeyman of “socialized medicine” and “the welfare state,” horror stories told by Republicans since Ronald Reagan’s “nine most terrifying words in the English language” (I’m from the government and I’m here to help), terrorized the villagers so much that they ran it out of town with pitchforks and torches.  So now, when Congress reaches an 11th-hour deal to help a struggling populace, it is breathless BREAKING NEWS rather than what it should be — the RESPONSIBILITY of our elected leaders.

The late Christopher Hitchens summed up the libertarian streak in American political philosophy in his typically entertaining and dismissive fashion:

I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.

Maybe those Catholics in Brooklyn might take a good, hard, long look at their holy book as they gather for Midnight Super-spreader Events this Christmas.   Jesus makes it clear that he is concerned with the hungry, the poor, the sick, and the prisoners, and so too should his followers be.  More to the point, when someone identified only as “an expert in the law” asks Jesus who this neighbor is that he’s supposed to love as he does himself in Luke 10:25–37, Jesus gives the revolutionary response that the neighbor includes anyone in need as demonstrated through the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Anyone.  In.  Need.  Like sick, dying, unemployed, food insecure, homeless, marginalized Americans.

Wear a mask.  Keep your distance.  Wash your hands.  Get vaccinated.  Stay home unless going out is necessary or unavoidable — holiday gatherings, while traditional, are unnecessary and avoidable. 

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