Friday, April 10, 2020
Some thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis
I commend to you Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s First Things essay on the COVID-19 situation and the bishops’ response to it. It exhibits his characteristic good sense and charity. First Things editor Rusty Reno, with whom Fr. Thomas Joseph disagrees, exhibits his characteristic magnanimity and intellectual honesty in running it. My sympathies are with Fr. Thomas Joseph’s views rather than Rusty’s, but I have been appalled by the nastiness of others who have responded to Rusty (who is a good man and a serious thinker and writer who deserves to be engaged with seriously). Our situation calls for patience with one another and the calm exchange of opposing views, for the sake of the common good. Too many have instead treated the debate over COVID-19 as an extension of hostilities that pre-existed the crisis. This is gravely contrary to reason and charity.
The situation is as complicated as it is dire. The consequences of either underreacting or overreacting could be catastrophic. However, in dealing with a pandemic, time is of the essence, and one has to act before it is too late, on the basis of a fallible judgment call. For this reason, authorities who decided on a lockdown opted to risk erring on the side of possible overreaction, and to me this seems reasonable. It also seems to me unreasonable to attribute suspect motives (as opposed to an error in judgment) to those who made these decisions, since they hardly benefit from economic catastrophe.
It is also unreasonable to condemn their actions on the grounds that the models they used in making their decisions are fallible, and indeed have since been modified. Models are all anyone has to go on in situations like this, and the skeptics have to make their own judgments on the basis of their own equally fallible models. Moreover, if infection and death rates turn out to be lower than was initially feared, then this might, of course, be attributed precisely to the efficacy of the measures taken in light of the models.
Skeptics will rightly point out that there is a danger here of making claims that are unfalsifiable. But they need to keep in mind that that is a point that cuts both ways. In the abstract, “Things would have worked out anyway, without the lockdown!” is no less unfalsifiable than “See, the lockdown worked!” What you have to do in order to test such claims is to compare cases where lockdowns were used to cases where they were not. But that is trickier than it seems because there are so many variables. What works in smaller countries may not work in larger ones. Some lockdowns might be more draconian than others, and if things work out well in the less draconian cases it will be hard to know whether to attribute that to the fact that the lockdown was less draconian or to the fact that there was a lockdown. And so on.
That is not to say that there is no right answer here. It is just to emphasize that the situation is one where complicated issues with momentous implications have to be hashed out under time constraints. Skeptics need to be heard, because any rational person will want to consider opposing views before deciding to take some drastic action. However, the skeptics ought to cut a lot of slack to those with responsibility for making those decisions.
In the short run, then, my sympathies are more with those who defend the lockdown than with those who are skeptical of it. However, in the long run those who defend the lockdown need to be more open, rather than less, to the considerations raised by the skeptics. To be sure, no one denies that the lockdown must be ended as soon as is reasonably possible, even if people disagree about what “reasonably” entails. But as time goes on, harder evidence about the nature of the virus will accumulate and we will have had more time carefully to weigh different options for dealing with it. The risk of overreaction will be harder to justify on the grounds of having to act under time constraints.
Moreover, the longer the lockdown goes on, the more the economic damage increases even as the danger posed by the virus decreases. It would be absurd and irresponsible to attribute concern about this to Wall Street greed. The potential damage includes mass unemployment, the destruction of ordinary people’s retirement plans, the depletion of their savings, social instability, and indeed the instability of the health care system itself. Authorities have to keep one eye always locked on this problem even as the other is directed at the virus.
This is why, as I say, both charity and sober debate are necessary. But there has been too little of either. Those who warned about the grave danger of COVID-19 were right. But too many of them – not all, by any means, but a disturbing number – have been prone to self-righteous grandstanding and a naked desire to politicize the crisis. Too many of the skeptics, meanwhile, have overreacted to this obnoxiousness and succumbed to the temptation to politicize the crisis in the opposite direction. In short, too many people are reacting to each other rather than to the situation. And they too often seem more concerned with petty point-scoring rather than with trying rationally to convince each other or with seeking each other’s well-being.
In the final paragraph of his article, Fr. Thomas Joseph offers some thoughts about what true Christian charity calls for in this situation. But it is in his penultimate paragraph that he addresses what, in my opinion, is the main lesson of this crisis, as of every crisis. It is a reminder that everyday pleasures, economic well-being, political order, health, and indeed life itself, are fleeting. It is a memento mori. It is a call to get serious about more serious things. As Fr. Thomas Joseph writes, “if we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point of the exercise.”