The National Narrative of a Virus

[1] We did it.   We crossed the quarter million mark in numbers of deaths due to Covid 19 in the United States.  And just before Thanksgiving.  Estimates now include being at over four hundred thousand by Inauguration Day.  Someplace in the middle for when Lutheran Social Ethicists gather?[1]

[2] With over a hundred and eighty thousand new cases a day and rising (and according to epidemiologists, countless more not being counted), what once had been a geographically concentrated disease – a select few states in the Northeast and far West – now stretches from sea to shining sea and everywhere in between.  No place is truly safe. With a consistent twenty percent of the world’s cases, what has remained sure has been that the United States remains an epicenter for this epidemic for months.  Our first wave never finished, just three peaks and three succeeding higher plateau periods later.

[3]Equal to all the numbers are the intense and widespread human stories.  We hear them on cable news shows.  Our newspapers publish the obituaries and the special “In Memoriam” inserts that may come quarterly.  Millions remain out of work in the pandemic economy.  Thousands of businesses are closed and will likely stay closed.  We use a new vocabulary – contact tracing, K curve, self-quarantine, social distancing, herd immunity, lockdown, super-spreader, asymptomatic, PPE, etc.  It is probably fair to say that only a very small percentage of American households remain untouched, unscathed by this corona virus.  It is also fair to say that the corona virus has become part of the nation’s current narrative.  For what is a narrative other than a generalizable story connecting events and providing insight into a community and its context?  The corona virus has surely done that, both in what has happened and in what has not been able to happen or continue (relationships conducted through windows, limits in other areas of medical research, postponed family events and funerals, etc.).

[4] Sure, vaccines appear on the horizon.  Thank God.  Perhaps by the time this is published, some may have already had theirs.   Initial tests for the frontrunner vaccines seem positive, big time.  Some therapeutics work to lessen the severity and timeline of the disease.  Medical research did its part in the war against the corona virus.  A testing and production process that usually takes three to five years to bear fruit has been compressed to a third of the time.  Did someone say we should talk about nominating saints as well as Nobel prize winners?

[5] All of the above should make us think about how high the numbers of infection and death continue to climb before the medical lifelines stretch to all Americans and to all the world’s peoples.  Positive as the vaccine news is, the technological success of the medical and pharmaceutical industries and international academia cannot and perhaps should not cover what Covid 19 exposed along its destructive way.

[6] A first fissure points to some of the limits of federalism in the face of a national catastrophe.  We take pride in not understanding governance to mean what only occurs at the apex of our sovereign state.   The spread of power and the power of civic engagement were heralded not only by our founders, but also by international observers like Alexis de Tocqueville.  But the threats that Covid brought to our decentralized system seemed different, more expanding, all inclusive.  What was happening in New York City in March and April of 2020 could not be stopped from pushing hard on New Jersey and Massachusetts.  They could not later be stopped from decimating Florida and Texas and moving in and out of California. The employment and mobility patterns of businesses crossed state lines, such as meat-packing plants, airlines, and traveling tourists.  The problem with each state responding to the virus differently, and local communities differing within states becomes the reality that boundaries and firebreaks are less meaningful, more porous, more irrelevant.  Covid-19 moved at will circulating around the country to show the reality of a national threat upon the nation.

[7] A second unmasked rift relates to the polarization of the culture, of the country.  National or international crises have always (well almost always) brought Americans together.  Ideology did not penetrate so deeply as to stop common cause.  The Cold War might be an example where regardless of political persuasion, most of the country’s leaders and followers saw a difference between here and there and what needed to be secured.  The success of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts might also be examples of common cause overcoming polarization.  We see it, too, when the call to volunteers goes out following the strike of a natural disaster.

[8] Clearly, something has changed.  Whether one wears a face mask in public might be the symbolic representation and evidence of such change.  If ever one could point to a series of events or problems that would bind the nation, surely it would be something that killed a thousand Americans a day.  In large ways, that has not been the case.  State capitals are invaded, governors are threatened, political leaders disregard scientific and medical guidelines, scientists and the process of science are derided, and whether or not to wear a face mask turns into a divisive argument.  So often the key questions needing answers devolved to a conflict between “the economy” or “public health” followed by a strong inability to ever get to “yes” by our political leaders.  This is not to say that the corona virus brought on this degree of polarization, side-taking, and outright antipathy between Americans and the factions they choose.  The corona virus magnified what was already there.  And what was there, to paraphrase Lincoln, was a house divided.

[9] The third fissure revealed that not all have born the impacts of Covid 19 equally.  Initially at the head of the line were the elderly and those living in senior care facilities.  The per capita numbers of deaths were staggering.  Was it due to pre-existing conditions alone?  Did it say something about the care of the aged in America?  The video photos of total isolation and separation from families, and the stories of life and death from the inside of senior care provided a gut punch of reality.  An especially hard punch when compared to lives and resources made available to this age group in other democratic societies.

[10] The next blinder to fall would be the relationship between the virus and race.  As in so many ways, race and racial inequality dominate the history and destiny of the American experiment.  Choices made and habits unbroken, policies supported, resource disequilibrium, and hypocrisies never challenged ensured the ongoing power of racial injustice within systems, structures and relationships.  That the number of deaths and infections due to the corona virus, as a percentage of the population, should track higher among African-American and Latino populations than white populations ran parallel to what has been confirmed by other statistical evidence.  The history of racial injustice in America, and the conditions that racial injustice developed, increased the likelihood of impact by corona virus among people of color, marginalized populations, and the poor.

[11] Perhaps no other group has taken on more risk during this time than those called “essential workers.”  In addition to healthcare and front-line providers, these are the mail carriers, grocery attendants, cab drivers, truck drivers, delivery personnel, and other direct service providers.  Many of them just make minimum wage or slightly above.  They are and continue to be essential.  Many of us depend more heavily on carry out, pick up, and direct delivery of almost everything that we need or want than ever before – especially where pre-existing medical conditions prevail.  Yet their risk in the middle of this pandemic, versus those who can work from home, exceeds what might be considered the fair wage owed to those taking those risks.  And little gets done to rectify these concerns of economic justice, or aid the household settings where decisions are made between doing the job or else potentially losing other goods (insurance, housing, health, personal and family security).

[12] Others may point to different significant ruptures in the American national fabric helped along by Covid-19 than those identified above.  They are certainly there.  So many parts of our lives and routines have been changed – how we work, how we shop, who we see and how we see them, how we worship, how we travel, how we vote, how we govern, how we go to a doctor, how we communicate, how we do family, what we believe about the future.

[13] Thinking about the future, there are many whose job considers what the next virus will be that moves from animal to human with all the potential of a different corona or Ebola virus.  Health institutions and projects from veterinary medical schools across the United States, major zoos, to the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and the non-profit agency, Global Virome Project, evaluate different settings and animal to people relationships around the world for movements of new diseases.  Such institutions track dozens of future candidates already in existence hoping to better predict and prepare what is needed medically for public health and for what is likely to come.  Ironically, the United States Government pulled out its funding from government agencies like the United States Agency for International Development that had been working with the above partners in March of 2020 on what became known as the PREDICT project.

[14] Human security speaks to concerns that threaten the nation’s safety and progress without necessarily originating from an enemy state, or from military hardware.  What Covid 19 has rendered in the last twelve months could easily be considered a human security threat.  The risks of climate change fall into the same category of security.  The country is economically weaker and more challenged. Its relative position has shifted with other nation-states not so embraced by the disease.  Its population is tired and thus far unable to bring down the levels of disease without the input of vaccines.  And that salvation though the distribution of vaccines to the nation’s population will surely take most of 2021 to accomplish.  The recent past has been about hard times, and the months ahead will likely be some tough times still.

[15] Taken all of the above information together, it seems imperative for faith communities – any and all faith communities – to take time and effort to consider what they need to be about as the society on every level, across every region, and probably within every household has moved and changed.  Few in our country do not have knowledge or experience in a personal way with the losses associated with this disease.  More questions require answers and actions than public policy might provide.  The moral and ethical dilemmas uncovered by this novel corona virus have been severe and stark whether thinking about methods of human triage in an emergency room, the relationship of safety to urgency when developing new medicines, or should the world’s population whose states can purchase vaccines with excess capital have greater access to them then populations in developing states.  And as discussed briefly earlier, we know there are more of these diseases out there yet to come.

[16] We as a planning team for the 2021 Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering, thought the intensity, ubiquity, and resulting ambiguities caused in so many people’s lives by Covid 19, and how we responded to the disease as a nation, created an imperative for this Gathering and for us as citizens and as ethicists to rethink and reengage with what is necessary for us to help mend the national fabric.   We are a torn people bearing many needs.  Standard operating procedures are likely to not keep up with the consequences unleashed by Covid 19.  Let this 2021 Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering be a part of the moral urgency needed in our time and place, and by our institutions both secular and faith-based.  Let dialog flourish meaningfully and productively.  Let us find our place to act.  Focusing upon dimensions of this disease in public and personal life for the good of all God’s people is the call. Turning away is not a choice.

[1] Editor’s note.  The U.S. is well above the half million mark at the time of this publication.

Michael Kuchinsky

Michael Kuchinsky, M.Div., Ph.D. recently retired as Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at Gardner-Webb University.