Two weeks ago we awoke from our dogmatic slumber of American exceptionalism to realize that the coronavirus was not merely some “Chinese virus,” or the bane of aging Italians. America, and her public officials in particular, have been playing catch up ever since. Lacking adequate testing to have any clear handle on where the virus was and wasn’t, many states and localities began enacting stringent measures for “social distancing,” to mitigate and suppress the spread of the deadly virus before it overwhelmed hospitals across America.
No sooner had these measures been implemented, however, than we began to get second thoughts. Stop going out to eat, cancel church services, lay off workers, all to stop an invisible virus? Perhaps we should just have a stiff upper lip, keep calm, and carry on. Surely that’s what our braver, nobler ancestors would have done. Our mercurial president was among the first to voice this sentiment, tweeting “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” and proclaiming his sudden and uncharacteristic longing to see the churches full on Easter morning. Business leaders lined up on cable news to admonish us that we mustn’t sacrifice the economy in our haste to save human lives; people die all the time, after all, and no one stops shopping because of it.
Perhaps most surprisingly, it didn’t take long before Christian leaders were joining the chorus as well, positioning themselves as voices of reason in the midst of an irrational panic, prudent conservatives who understood that life involves trade-offs, and that in the present case, sacrificing economic activity for public health was not an acceptable trade-off. Indeed, certain high-profile evangelicals, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., have made news by flaunting government restrictions, and no less a figurehead than Rusty Reno penned an editorial in First Things denouncing all these precautionary measures as subjecting us to “the dominion of death.” Much better, he reasoned, to just face death head-on than to change our way of life in trying to avoid it.
This sort of stance puts conservative Christians in a somewhat awkward position. After all, have we not spent decades denouncing the “culture of death” that was more than happy to sacrifice the lives of the weak unborn, the vulnerable, and the inconvenient elderly for the pursuit of freedom, wealth, and material comfort? Now, it looks—at first glance at any rate—that the same Christians are denouncing as a “culture of death” a society that is prepared to sacrifice freedom, wealth, and material comfort in order to preserve the lives the weak, the vulnerable, and the elderly. A dizzying about-face indeed, and one that has prompted a fair bit of gloating that Christians are hypocrites, and that all that pro-life posturing was little better than self-indulgent moral preening.
Such accusations are surely unfair; there is, after all, an important moral difference between taking life (as in abortion), and failing to prevent death (as those like Reno encourage us to do). Moreover, it is not hard to see why some conservative Christians might have been so quick to take the “keep calm and let the economy carry on” line—after all, Christians are called to fearlessness in the face of death, and have become so accustomed to swimming against the cultural and political tide that contrarianism has become an almost unconscious reflex. Still, in politics and culture, perception is often reality, and we need to be very conscious of the damage that this reflex could do to the Christian witness.
As Rod Dreher noted, it is embarrassing that Andrew Cuomo of all people has succeeded in positioning himself as more pro-life than Rusty Reno. The current crisis, in fact, affords Christians an unprecedented opportunity to persuasively articulate our defense of life to a culture that might at last be ready to listen. For the first time in decades, our materialistic society has been put on pause, and people are looking around and asking themselves, “What is this all for? What is the value of human life? Am I willing to sacrifice my freedom to protect my neighbor? Can I sacrifice some comfort to protect life?” As Christians, we can use this opportunity to seize the megaphone and remind those around us of the transcendent value of human life and the frivolity of the kind of “freedom” that our culture so values. Or, we can squander this moment and go down in history as those who stood callously by and said that a few hundred thousand more American deaths is a small price to pay for maintaining our standard of living.
The Opportunity for Pro-Lifers
Now, at this moment, a chorus of objections will be raised.
Some will protest that there won’t be hundreds of thousands of deaths, and anyone who says so is a fear-monger. My hope too is that the death toll will be relatively low, but if so, it will only be because we listened to the so-called “fear-mongers” or because we got incredibly lucky. The vast majority of the epidemiological data points to a grim scenario in the absence of dramatic intervention. To be sure, models are sometimes wrong and experts are not omniscient, but we rarely hesitate to cut our beach vacations short when a major hurricane—something far less predictable than an epidemic curve—is on its way, so it’s hard to see the rational ground for blithely ignoring the threats of this other force of nature—infinitesimally smaller, perhaps, but far more deadly.
More substantively, perhaps, many will protest that it is unfair to characterize this as a tradeoff between economics and human life—even if that is exactly the way that many have carelessly articulated it, not least our own President. After all, economics is all about the preservation and flourishing of human life, or at least it’s supposed to be. It has no plausible justification except to promote life, health, and well-being; as John Ruskin argued powerfully in Unto This Last?, in the last assessment, there is “no wealth but life,” and our political economy must be ordered accordingly.
So what does this mean for our situation? If people lose jobs, they lose their livelihood. If they lose their livelihoods, they are much more likely to get sick and die—perhaps at some point far in the future, but still, why should we save 500,000 people now if it means losing five million newly-impoverished Americans to drugs, despair, or starvation in the next ten years. Can we knowingly sacrifice some lives now in order to protect other goods, including perhaps more lives later?
This is, I fear, something of an academic question at the current juncture—if public health experts are to be believed, this is not really a question of whether we lose jobs or lose lives, but whether we lose lots of jobs and few lives, or lots of jobs and lots of lives. It is difficult to believe that the economy would continue to properly function in the scenario of unmitigated spread toward which so many contrarians like Reno are goading us.
People are not going to casually ride subways and go out for dinner if hospitals are overflowing and people are dying in the streets. If proactive government action (which oddly now counts as “panic” in the eyes of many) didn’t shut down the businesses, real, society-wide panic would likely do so soon enough, and in considerably more disorderly fashion. Still, it has been long since we as a society have stared the prospect of mass death in the face, and many, understandably, cannot imagine or believe that we could find ourselves in that position in a few weeks time. So let us ask the question: if we could choose between losing lots of lives now and losing lots of jobs now, how should we choose? It is an important and serious moral question, one that should not be lightly dismissed. How might we begin to answer it?
Loving Our Neighbor by Staying Away?
The first thing we must do is get clear on what question exactly is being asked of us. Reno seeks to frame the issue in terms of the Christian duty to be fearless in the face of death, but this, I think, rather misses the point. The call to social distancing is an appeal first and foremost not to self-love, but to love of neighbor. Even if you are young and healthy and more than happy to endanger your life by going about your daily routine, that does not give you a right to endanger others, which is precisely what an invisible, often asymptomatic virus may cause you to do. Christians are called to faith and hope, to be sure, but also to love. Traditionally, Christians have taught that the sixth commandment imposes on us not merely an obligation not to kill but to do whatever we reasonably can to preserve life: “The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others…” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 135). So the proper framing of this question is: “is it more loving to our neighbor to increase the number of people who will get sick and die in the near term, or to decrease our economic well-being in the near-term (thus, presumably, increasing sickness and death in the long run)?”
We must also recognize that considering such tradeoffs is not in itself morally odious. Tradeoffs are the basic material out of which the moral life is woven, and this includes tradeoffs in human life. At first glance, this may look like an appalling consequentialism—“would you shoot one person to save the lives of ten others?”—but that is an optical illusion. There is, as Oliver O’Donovan keenly notes in Begotten or Made?, a moral asymmetry between action and inaction. It is never acceptable to push someone out of a lifeboat to save more food for the others on board, but it may be acceptable—and indeed necessary—to choose how many drowning people to fish out of the sea and into your lifeboat. If you cannot save all, you must let some die. This is one point that Reno is right to make: “Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage”; we must always give up some goods (say, serving more customers) in order to protect others (spending time with family), and life-or-death situations like war and disease simply throw this moral constant into sharper relief.
Indeed, Christian ethics has also long distinguished between directly intending the death of another, and acting in such a way that the death of another is a foreseen likely consequence. So, for instance, just war theory never authorizes the intentional targeted killing of innocent civilians, but it does allow that one may bomb a munitions factory even when this is likely to result in civilian deaths—if the action is otherwise justifiable in terms of the goods to be achieved and the evil averted. Similarly, I should never swerve out of my way in order to hit a deer, but if it’s a choice between hitting the deer and swerving into a ditch, thus risking the lives of my passengers, then the right thing to do is obviously to plough on ahead.
This is the kind of moral question that social distancing poses. Indeed, to put it in the most concrete possible terms, imagine that you have an older friend who is depressed and suicidal. You can drive over to their house, comfort them, give them a hug, and risk possibly infecting them with Covid-19. Or, you can keep your distance, leave them alone, and risk letting their depression take its dark course? This is in effect the question we are being asked to answer on a society-wide level (and the answer may look very different on that level than when considering an individual friendship): do we choose isolation so as to avoid endangering others here and now? Or do we try and choose normalcy, so as to avoid imperiling livelihoods now—and thus more lives in the long term?
Against Sentimentalism (and Utilitarianism)
With the question before us now clear, how can we answer it? It’s not easy to find the right path in the midst of such moral murk, but we can at least discern that it must lie between two common errors. The first is a sentimentalism which says that the life that we can see most vividly is always the one that needs protecting. This is the error which sees a picture of drowned migrant child on the coast of Greece and concludes that every refugee must be given asylum now, and every border guard is a murderer, or who painstakingly counts the number of civilian deaths in a war and concludes that we should all be pacifists. Life demands to be protected, but the life that is most vividly and immediately threatened does not necessarily impose such an overriding moral claim that we can ignore any thought for future lives.
The second error is a soulless utilitarianism that would turn every decision into a open-ended calculus of potential lives saved or lost, however distant or speculative. Such an error lies behind the totalitarian dream of maximizing human well-being by transferring resources wherever they are most needed: if more people could be kept alive by taking a little wine and cheese off of your table so that there could be a bit more bread and water on others’ tables, then the Commissariat will see to it that the transfer is made. Life demands to be protected, but some lives—those that are near and clear rather than far and vague, those that are at risk now rather than in the dim mists of futurity, those that have been given to us to protect rather than those that lie in the hands of Providence—demand to be protected most of all.
In the present crisis, sentimentalism appears to us in the guise of the earnest politician who says that a single extra life lost to coronavirus is a price he will not pay, and that he will take any steps necessary to prevent that. The sentimentalist fails to realize that every decision involves paying some price, perhaps even in human lives, and that it is blindness, not love, to ignore these hidden costs.
Utilitarianism appears to us in the guise of the steely-eyed “realist” who tells us that we must accept any number of lives lost in the near term because of his calculations about how much damage a quarantine would do to our economy. The utilitarian fails to realize that these calculations are just that—calculations, highly complex and speculative—and that there are other actions that may be available to us in the future to prevent the harms that he foresees as inevitable. (After all, there is no shortage of wealth in our economy; making sure that the most vulnerable are protected in an economic collapse is more of a political problem than a straightforwardly economic one).
The Time That is Given to Us
Posed with such a challenge, we are liable to respond, like Frodo, with despair: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” But Gandalf’s famous reply is apropos: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” But how can we decide?
In the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson places this conversation right after Frodo’s exclamation that “it was a pity that Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.” This, I would suggest, holds a key insight for our dilemma. Had Bilbo killed Gollum when he had the chance (which would hardly have been unjust), suggests Frodo, much future harm would have been averted. But, says Gandalf, “even the wise cannot foresee all ends”—utilitarianism fails because we simply cannot calculate the future possible consequences of our actions. We must act in the here and now on the basis of virtue, honor and duty, on the basis of the moral obligations which seem nearest and clearest. Again, wartime can furnish us with useful examples.
Reno appeals to the example of triage, which is sadly not a far-off hypothetical, but a present reality in many hospitals overflowing with Covid-19 patients. In the gruesome field hospitals of wartime and the overwhelmed ICU wards of a pandemic, doctors must allow some to die in order to save others.
This situation, however, fails as an analogy for the “quarantine vs. the economy” dilemma. In triage, both deaths are near, clear, and avoidable by similar means, and so it is merely a question of probability: I can operate on this guy and he’ll have an 80% chance of pulling through, or I can operate on this guy, and he’ll have a 50% chance of pulling through; so I must prioritize the former. In the “quarantine vs. the economy” dilemma, there is a much more profound uncertainty. We do not know exactly how many lives might be saved by quarantine measures in the near term, and we certainly do not know exactly how many lives might be saved or improved by better economic performance in the long term. The time scales of the two risks are also radically different. The analogy to triage fails.
On the other hand, consider the “no man left behind” policy that many armies have practiced in wartime, including our own. According to this policy, honor and duty dictate that a unit must be willing to subject itself to great risk in order to rescue a trapped comrade or even bring home a fallen comrade’s body. Is this mere sentimentalism? No, it recognizes that life is more than mere breath, that a life without honor is not worth living. (Ironically, Reno makes this same point in his article, but seems to conclude, bewilderingly, that our honor is at stake in our right to keep on going to work as usual.)
A military unit that subjected its fallen comrades to a utilitarian risk/reward calculus beyond would not be a unit, because it would have no bonds of honor and loyalty to hold it together. Similarly, a society cannot function if it treats every possible life as a cipher in a grand trade-off equation. It must, like a military unit, establish some non-negotiables.
Among these non-negotiables, it seems to me, should be honor and respect for the aged. Utilitarianism says that these people have the least time left to live anyway, so they are the most expendable. The Judeo-Christian heritage says that the aged are priceless repositories of wisdom, that they gave us life and wealth and left us forever in their debt, that they demand our honor and respect. They do not deserve to die alone at home or in an overflowing hospital hallway, gasping for breath.
Moreover, in this war that we are fighting, our doctors and nurses are our front-line troops. We complain about having to stay at home—they wish they could stay at home. Instead, they are bravely marching to battle each day and risking their own lives and those of their families, while we sit at home on our laptops and pound away angrily about how our freedoms are being violated. Do we not have a duty to them to do whatever we can to mitigate the spread of this virus? It all sounds so abstract and hypothetical to say, “forget flattening the curve; let’s just get it all over with quickly,” but it does not sound that way if you’re working at a hospital and watching the ER rooms fill up each day with new patients gasping for breath.
Life After Normal
We do not know what the economic costs of social distancing might be. But we know well enough what the human costs of flaunting these demands might be. We know that we cannot wantonly and recklessly infect our neighbors and endanger our doctors simply in pursuit of near-term normalcy. To be sure, we have an urgent responsibility to think medium-term and long-term as well. We must not, as Trump tweeted, let the cure be worse than the problem. But there are political remedies to the unavoidable economic damage. There are, moreover, remedies that each and every one of us could be a part of. What might it be like if every American whose livelihood was secure gave their entire stimulus check to a neighbor who had lost his job, or donated it to their church’s diaconal fund? Would we really be facing untold death and misery as a result of a social-distancing-induced recession? Perhaps, but I doubt it.
At the root of our protest that “the cure is worse than the disease,” I suspect, is a fear that our own way of life may have to change. Comforts that we once took for granted might turn out to be luxuries. Luxuries that we once aspired to may have to be shelved for another decade or two. Freedoms that we thought were our birthright, we will be forced to realize, were in fact simply the lucky blessing of having been born at the right time. For every generation in human history before those now living, “the economy” lived in a state of constant fragility, subject to forces of nature large and small. Epidemics and quarantines were facts of life. The freedom to live under your own vine and fig tree without interference was an eschatological hope rather than a political given.
Behind the anguished cry, “But the economy!” I suspect, is a futile grasping after the mirage of freedom that is now fast slipping away—the idea that we can and should be free to make our own decisions about our lives without regard to the effects of these decisions on those around us, that you’re welcome to give me advice about when it’s safe to leave my home, but how dare you give me a command? Such freedom—the freedom to live independent from natural constraint, independent from coercive authority, and independent of considerations of the public good—may be the freedom that Olympian gods aspired to, but it was never Christian freedom or a viable political reality.
Christian freedom means love of neighbor, and this begins with the Sixth Commandment. What does this mean in the face of pandemic and recession? The same as it has always meant:
The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations, by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 135)
Let us be grateful that our political leaders have the moral awareness to recognize these obligations, and pray that God would give them wisdom to do their tasks faithfully in the face of the most difficult decisions that many of them have ever faced. There may be a time to protest and speak prophetically against tyranny, but this is not that time. Rather, it is a time to
“submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” (1 Pet. 2:13-17)
‘As Rod Dreher noted, it is embarrassing that Andrew Cuomo of all people has succeeded in positioning himself as more pro-life than Rusty Reno.’ Not embarrassing. Expected. Predictable.
Between Sentimentalism and Utilitarianism is this: Life lived makes us pragmatists. (See the Cardijn Method: See/Observe Judge Act – OJA)
Please see NYT today: ‘The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals’ and the work of John Fea, Historian, Evangelical (MH Audio, Vox, Salon, Atlantic).
As for the current moment: Streaming Daily and Sunday Mass w Barron et al. Anglican Use/Ordinariate Compline by Conference Call. Bust’a Move Bike Rides, push-ups, walks in the hood (w proper distancing of course). New Yorker, Harpers, Atlantic. And lots and lots of Date Nights.
Thanks for reminding me of John Fea’s excellent work.
I’m also using this time to change up my daily exercise routine. I’ve also decided to work harder on French fluency, and to improve my knowledge of French wine and spirits. Fortunately, the wine shop a few doors down the street from me has been deemed to be an essential business in my state.
So a magnum in each hand for curls, front flys, and overhead tripes. Light so hi reps.
Hint: workout before the glass…full bottle weight n all.
We’re in this together.
Thanks. Love clear thinking like this.
Excellent article, thank you so much. Helps to reflect and clarify thinking on what “culture of life” really means.
[…] Can you stand one more bit about how Christians ought to be reasoning through this pandemic crisis? I hope so, because at Mere Orthodoxy, Brad Littlejohn, a political theory professor, has written the best thing I’ve yet seen about that…Excerpts: […]
Wonderful article. Thank you. I admit something which embarrasses me deeply, and I do it so I will have the credibility to point out a mistake you make: until recently, for God alone knows what reason, I took it for granted that Brazil was on the west coast of South America. I learned otherwise recently.
There. Having humiliated myself, I feel morally qualified to tell you that you are misusing the word, “flaunt.” The correct word for the two places in which you use “flaunt” is actually “flout.”
My drippy mistake about Brazil’s location was corrected by a few shocked seconds spent in looking at a map. Your much more understandable mistake can be fixed forever by a few seconds spent with a dictionary.
Thanks for making that point. The problem with substituting “flaunt” for “flout” is that the writer essentially reverses his intended meaning, which is not a great look when the whole point is to try to draw some careful philosophical distinctions.
I’m something of a pragmatist. Even so, Reno’s logic confounds me. The economy will rebound. It may take some government intervention, but there’s a lot of pent-up capital in the US and a lot of wasteful spending in DC that can easily be directed to addressing the effects of this crisis. Even so, I’m unwilling to see my 70-something parents die on Reno’s altar of propping up the stock price of Carnival Cruise Lines. Reno seems to be moving away from Christianity and more in an alt-right direction. This just confirms it.
It’s all somewhat academic at this point since there is much that we don’t know. We don’t know how many will die. Projections change by the day. Experts, as well as people of faith, disagree.
As for the pro-abortion Judas, Cuomo, he is not “more pro-life” than any faithful Christian.
This is true. It is a distortion of this that the SJWs promote in their deplatforming and the firing of people who express certain opinions. There are reasons why certain “progressive Christians” buy into that agenda; it’s a distortion of Christian principles.
I am a family physician who seeks to be like Jesus but knows I fall far short. I have had troubling questions about this issue and have shared these in a post in a Christian group where the responses to my questions have startled me at times with the degree of condemnation and accusations of ignorance or irresponsibility along with aspersions against my character or sincerity of my care for people. My purpose in my original post was to question how we are choosing this particular path in response to this particular infection, and I have been often been met with what I have perceived to be vitriolic condemnation rather than respectful conversation about how the conclusions are being made and how these decisions will impact our world.
Thank you, Brad Littlejohn, for a thoughtful and loving article addressing the questions. I appreciate your article. I do, though, have a real concern about the question that you declare is only academic at the current juncture – can we believe the public health experts? I would add, or is there a spiritual component that is attacking any who question those experts?
I DO grieve the loss of lives. I DO grieve for those who are making decisions about how to triage life. I DO grieve for the fallen state of this world. I am a physician because God made me to care desperately about people, and I take that responsibility incredibly seriously. In medical school and residency I was taught to critically evaluate studies. I learned about the differences between controlled randomized trials and case studies. Again, I know that we do not have the luxury of taking time to do controlled randomized trials. However, my concern is that the data upon which the decisions are being made are not being critically evaluated, and I absolutely fear that there is a spiritual component to the condemnation of those who question that data. I do not disagree that something has to be done. My question is whether all of the components of the “something” we are doing are the right somethings or the wrong somethings.
My questions about the extrapolations being made are coming not from ignorance but from a desire to critically evaluate all that I hear and discern where truth lies – I want to be like the Bereans who compared what they heard to what they knew to be true. I do not need to be a statistician to question the statistics any more than I need to be a cardiologist to question the data on medications used to treat hypertension. Please, pause to consider some of my concerns.
I have read the articles. I have looked at the data. I have seen the graphs. And I note that none of them that I have seen provide confidence limits or the standard error or the standard statistical analyses. The conclusions about the mortality rate and rate of spread are based on an unknown denominator. The decisions being made are being based on several conclusions that the experts sometimes admit are not definite, but upon making an assumption they proceed onward with analyses that are based on what is, unfortunately, only an assumption. One of these assumptions is this infection doubles every six days. If the infection really did double every 6 days, and since the first death known to be caused by COVID was on December 21, 2019, that equates to 16.5 doublings. Two to the 16.5th power equals 92,681, so we would expect to have at least that many deaths by now. Currently there are 32,329 deaths due to COVID. Please hear me – I GRIEVE for each and every one of the human beings created in God’s image that have died. Each life is important. My concern is that the math upon which the decisions to socially distance and shelter at home and put masks on any person who has a cold are not bearing up to questioning. Many will reply by saying that the reason we don’t have that many deaths is because of the measures being taken by the Chinese government and then the other governments. But can we really conclude that or do we need to question the projections? If the assumption about rate of doubling is correct we should be expecting to have two more doublings by April 10th, so we should expect a total of 370,727 deaths worldwide. I am doing all I can in my clinic and in my life to keep as many people alive as possible, and I pray to the God who is in control that He spares us. However, as a human created to critically evaluate all that I hear and as a physician trained to evaluate data in my efforts to save lives, I have to ask if the world-wide reaction is based on correct math or if there are other factors involved. As the author agrees, people WILL die from the restrictions being put into place. Before we proceed onward with the absolutely right decision to do all that we can to prevent the imminent deaths, we do need to pause and question whether the “how” we are doing that is really the best answer.
My cousin is an astrophysicist and he private messaged me after I publicly asked if the conclusions being made are proportionate to the real risk. His exact message to me was this: “I applaud your efforts at education. People don’t understand geometric growth, and even so, both the base and the exponent are quite uncertain, and when you start talking about models and the range of outcomes, heads explode. Bravo for your efforts.” I do not want a “Bravo.” I take no glee in situations where people are dying. This sucks. It really does, but I feel compelled to question the conclusions being made, especially because I am seeing and feeling a heavy spiritual component to these decisions and the communication about them.
As Christians we know that there are two forces in this world. The powers of this world are led by a being that was created to be intelligent, beautiful, and powerful. He has had millenia to develop his horrible craft as he seeks to destroy all that God loves, and he started by asking people if they could trust God or if they should seek to find answers for their new-found questions on their own. We know where that got us. Now, I fear, he is changing his course a bit by challenging those who are questioning the authorities and the conclusions they make and guising that challenge with a tone of religiosity that puts those in authority as being unquestionable.
The entire response to how we respond to this COVID crisis hangs on the question that the author presumes is already answered: “if public health experts are to be believed.” As a physician, I am used to people arguing about the conclusions all of the time. For better or worse, we physicians are a strong-headed and vocal group. However, I am personally experiencing condemnation for even raising this question, and I have gotten private messages from other Christian physicians who share my concerns but are too afraid of being on the receiving end of that condemnation. Why, I have to ask God, is this the case? Then, what am I (or we) called to do about it?
I agree with your skepticism and the comments made by your cousin. Personally, I don’t know what it takes to become a “public health expert” since I have never heard of a public expert accurately predicting the spread of a disease. It seems like all it takes is a little bit of algebra and a whole lot of untested public policy.
FWIW, I don’t think you’d want controlled randomized samples since there is too much variance in important variables in COVID population, e.g., age, level of fitness, tobacco use, other health risks, stage of the disease, etc. You would want controlled matched paired samples. I think we already know that the elderly and infirm are at a greater risk than the young and otherwise healthy, and with a randomized sample those differences would be diluted.
Thank you. Though my heart is sick at the cost these decisions are having and will have on the people I love and for whom I care, I am realizing again that God has not put me in a position of authority to do anything about this other than to encourage those individuals not to allow terror to control them while personally looking back at the Ebenezer stones in my past that testify to God’s faithfulness in times of great uncertainty so I remind myself to trust Him. Oh, and you’re 100% right about the randomized controlled studies!!
I wish you were my family doctor! Glad to hear this reasoning coming from a medical professional. These are all the same concerns I have had from the beginning. I also thought about how the author of this article trusts the information we are getting. And now, a month later, there is a lot of information coming out that proves the powers that be have conflicts of interest.
Also, I think the real utilitarian thinking starts with the quarantine. Why not stop the world for every death? Why only now that we fear it will happen in the masses?
There’s an earlier comment that disappeared from a physician who felt that we should give greater credence to Reno’s view based on alleged widespread disagreement among public health officials. The comment has since vanished. Below is my response.
I don’t see where there’s the sort of widespread disagreement among public health experts that you allege exists, At this juncture, we have far too little data to assess what risk we’d be imposing onto the public at large if we were to relax social-distancing requirements and beckon people to return to their usual way of doing business. To do this responsibly, we’d need to have some sense of how many people have already been infected. Widespread testing—both for active virus and for antibodies—is the key to securing data that will allow us to make a reasonable assessment of risk. Only now are we begging to develop tests that will allow us to carry out high-throughput screening for the presence of COVID19 antibodies in the population at large. We probably won’t have this capability by June. That’s why the Trump administration’s eight-week response lag was so damaging. That lag deprived us of the ability to get in front of the spread and have data in hand to make the kinds of risk assessments to which you refer.
At this point, we’re stuck with worst-case-scenario modeling. We know that COVID19 infections transmit from human to human at 2.0-2.5x the rate of H1N1 or the seasonal flu. We also suspect that its mortality rate could be as much as 10x that of the seasonal flu. But we just don’t know. By contrast, before the first H1N1 cases arrived on our shores, we knew that its mortality rate was about one-fifth of the mortality rate of the seasonal flu. So, while contracting H1N1 may ruin your week, it wasn’t going to kill off hundreds of thousands of people. Also, because its transmission rate was low, we understood well in advance of its arrival that our healthcare system could manage what was coming. But, during this go-around, we have little of the data that would allow us to make such risk assessments, and we have a virus that transmits through the population much more rapidly and with a seemingly higher mortality rate.
Then, there’s the question of what the costs actually are. The worst-case-scenario economic models place the price tag for this at somewhere around 2/3 of the cost of our needless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost will likely be a lot lower. That’s because economic activity will shift to other sectors, and adapt to the new situation. We’re much more likely to witness an economic transition than a prolonged depression. And the US is the best poised of the G8 nations to undertake and absorb rapid economic transitions. In fact, this could be a boon of sorts, as it forces us to incorporate technological advances at a more rapid pace. I suspect that the US will readjust and recover economically within a couple of years. And because our system adjusts to changing economic conditions more readily than those of Asian and European countries, the changes will likely enhance our economic well-being for the ensuing decade.
So, while it’s fine to raise the question, I do wonder *why* you’re raising the question. After all, the information I’ve set forth above is fairly consistent with what you’ll find reported on every independent news source worldwide except for FOX. And we all know why FOX is interested in creating an alternative narrative: They understand that the testing delays haven’t afforded us enough time for the economy to recover by November 2020. When preparing for a potential crisis, you typically focus on the worst-case scenario, based on the best available data. In this case, the President’s supporters are focusing on the best-case scenario because that’s probably the only scenario that prevents Trump from suffering a well-deserved drubbing this fall. There is very little conflicting information coming from independent public health officials worldwide. The dissenting views are coming almost universally from those who have a vested interest in seeing some economic recovery before Trump has to make his re-election case to the American people.
I’d also note that the ensuing economic changes, and their concomitant social and political changes, will probably not move the country in the direction that social traditionalists desire. On the bright side, I believe that we’ll likely bring more of our manufacturing supply chain back to the US, which will create jobs for higher-skill blue-collar workers in Middle America. But, overall, the forces of the ensuing economic transition will likely accelerate the pace at which a kind of technocratic pragmatism comes to set the tenor of the culture. If you’re a MAGA type who wants to return to the hierarchical culture of the 1950s where women, gays, non-whites, and non-Christians knew their place, then you won’t like what’s coming. America will be great again, but not on the terms that Trump’s nativist base envisions. As a mixed-race gay guy who focuses my legal practice on venture capital financing in the pharmaceutical, medical device, and health care industries, I welcome these changes. We need to invest more in tomorrow’s economy and less in yesterday’s economy. And we need to judge people on their merit, and not on whether their private lives conform outwardly to 1950s norms. (I say “outwardly” because, during my years in DC, I met very few social conservatives who practiced behind closed doors what they preached when they went to work at places like Heritage, FRC, and the like.)
Perhaps I said more than necessary. But, from what I can tell, most public health officials are on the same page. Those who are promoting alternate policies based on best-case scenarios generally have a vested reason for doing so. They recognize the social and political implications of staying the course, and they dislike where that will likely lead. So, their only hope to avoid that eventuality is to hope that the best-case scenarios are right and to adjust policies accordingly. I suspect that’s why many in your social circle aren’t willing to buy your question-raising as entirely innocent.
Hello again. I am the physician whose comment disappeared, though I have no clue how that happened and it is, now visible again. Given your response I have to believe you read my comment and interpreted it a certain way, then could not find it when ready to post your comment, as your summary that I “felt that we should give greater credence to Reno’s view based on alleged widespread disagreement among public health officials” was not at all true. Instead, I was questioning why we as doctors and scientists (admittedly not the target audience here) have not been allowed to challenge the data upon which the responses to COVID are being based. Instead of ascribing my questions to less than innocent motives, please re-read the comment I posted, the summary of which said: “The entire response to how we respond to this COVID crisis hangs on the question that the author presumes is already answered: “if public health experts are to be believed.” As a physician, I am used to people arguing about the conclusions all of the time. For better or worse, we physicians are a strong-headed and vocal group. However, I am personally experiencing condemnation for even raising this question, and I have gotten private messages from other Christian physicians who share my concerns but are too afraid of being on the receiving end of that condemnation. Why, I have to ask God, is this the case? Then, what am I (or we) called to do about it?”
Thanks for responding.
Some of this relates to the fact that this has been politicized. We now know that the Trump administration received notice concerning the virus as early as November 2019. When one looks at the nimble responses of South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, it’s clear that China indeed provided information to other governments months ago. I suspect that China hoped to contain the spread. After all, small outbreaks of novel viral diseases are more common that we probably care to know. That’s why we invest in pandemic preparedness.
South Korea and other counties began quietly preparing as far back as November. Many European countries did the same, Italy, Spain, and the United States are notable exceptions. It’s no surprise that Italy and Spain were unprepared. It is surprising that the US was so unprepared. But perhaps it shouldn’t be so. We have an administration that is principally concerned with putting on a daily reality show and winning the news cycle. Vast numbers of key federal positions remain vacant. Many public servants in key roles are doing the jobs of two people. And there’s a constant revolving door among the political leadership at various agencies. In many cases, the political positions are filled by interim appointees because these folks would never survive Senate confirmation. Practically anyone who’s hit the 20-year mark is walking away.
So, I suspect that China’s warning to us in November was overlooked because the federal bureaucracy is in a state of chaos and because the political leadership had other priorities. After all, the people who surround Trump are a bunch of also-rans who wouldn’t have made it past a screening interview in any previous GOP administration.
So, it’s hard to say anything concerning this viral outbreak without people assuming an underlying political motive. So, forgive me for assuming a political motive if none was intended.
I too question whether some of the advice we’ve received. I suspect that much of the advice is tailored to deal with multiple problems at once. For example, it’s been known for months that wearing a mask is beneficial for lowering the magnitude of exposure. This is important, as the likelihood of initiating an inflammatory cascade seems to depend on how much virus one encounters at initial exposure. But we likely had a shortage of masks. I have several washable masks that I use when traveling to Japan for work. I’ve been wearing a mask while shopping, etc., since early February. I knew of its effectiveness because I saw a report on the Japanese news in early February indicating that. There’s also the issue with social compliance. The disease hasn’t spread in Germany because people there typically follow government guidelines to a tee. So, the government can take a more minimalist approach because it knows that no one will push the envelope. In our case, we overdo it because we know that some fraction of the population will only ever go about 70% of the way.
I too wish that we could have a more open discussion about these issues. And I with that there were not news outlets, like Fox, that are happy to pander falsehoods if it will help to paper over our government’s woeful failure to act on the information that China provided us in November. For me, it’s just one more intriguing observation of a country that claims me as a citizen but to which I still count myself to be a foreigner.
Dr. Allen – Our Comment system is buggy and sometimes comments disappear. I have tried fixing it in the past but the issue has come back multiple times. I apologize for the problem, but I’m not sure how best to resolve it at this point.
Your writing is wordy and annoying, but you make one or two good points.
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Unfair representation of President Trump. Have you listened to anything else he has said besides one tweet?
Please don’t try and make it a Romans 13 issue. 1) The civil government does have authority in plagues as per Leviticus but there are parameters. a) It’s always a reaction, where a plague is detected and then quarantine is in effect and 2) it’s for individuals which would include businesses which biblically are always in the individual domain, but not churches which are never under the authority of government. AND 2) This U.S. government is bound by the Constitution which protects the God-given right of Freedom of Assembly, so any law they make against that is unlawful and not binding for a Christian. We may obey because the government has force to do the wrong thing, obedience by convience, but not because we have to.
We close our churches because we don’t want to add to the problem, and many like mine did so before any government rulings came down. My lawyer told me yesterday, by the way, that if I engaged in “civil disobedience “ I would be seen by the public as doing so for my “privileges “ not my “rights.”
I like how in this article that the author realizes he’s in a bind and then quickly states that we’ll figure stuff out about trade offs later. After it’s too late to make the correct decision or think about what we’re doing ahead of time.
When all returns to normal and no one is calling for an economic shutdown because of the seasonal flu, please remember society makes these trade offs all the time.
Wow! That was a good read and well spent 20 minutes. Thx for writing this!!!
[…] theory that we’ve latched onto. To help us get started with this, I’d recommend reading Brad Littlejohn’s and Matthew Lee Anderson’s pieces at MereOrthodoxy. What I say below overlaps considerably […]
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[…] week, Brad Littlejohn published an article at Mere Orthodoxy calling for us to trust the experts, accept the uncertainty, sacrifice (at least some of us) for […]
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I am so happy to come across this article, as it addresses a lot of the questions I have had.
I also saw a lot of utilitarian thinking back when you wrote this article. But what I was hearing was how social distancing would save more lives and how lives are more important than money. The economy is directly tied with livelihood. Hunger is one of the leading causes of death in our world. Why have we not stopped our world to figure out issues like that? What makes this epidemic worse than the epidemic of heart disease? We aren’t stopping the world to figure out how to save those lives?
Another question – is spreading disease without knowing and someone dying considered murder? If so, why don’t we all stay quarantined in our homes at all times so that we don’t accidentally kill someone? The first time I connected the utilitarian philosophy with this pandemic was when I asked these questions. It seems that we are getting serious about saving these lives because there are so many at risk. But why are the “many” worth more than the few that might die because someone went out in public with a small cold and passed it to someone who got pneumonia from it and died?
Loving our neighbor is important, but shouldn’t we love all of our neighbors? Thrusting people into poverty and making it so they can’t feed their family is not loving our neighbor.
I don’t think we should’ve just gone on with normal life to get it over with faster. The Bible talks about quarantine. But God had them quarantine the sick and vulnerable. Not the healthy.
[…] of sentimentalism and utilitarianism. Brad Littlejohn, president of the Davenant Institute, offers his perspective in a Mere Orthodoxy piece. Littlejohn reminds the Christian community […]
[…] worry more about public health” and “those who worry more about the economy.” But as I’ve elsewhere written, and many others have as well, it’s not really that simple. For one thing, those who oppose […]
[…] “No Wealth but Life”: Moral Reasoning in a Pandemic (Mere Orthodoxy, March 2020) […]
[…] name. The beginning of this interview mentions an article by Brad Littlejohn entitled Moral Reasoning in a Pandemic. I would also commend this article to you. The article was written at the beginning of this crisis, […]