If you’re healthy and young, minimizing your exposure to the novel coronavirus is less a health issue than a moral issue. And our supposedly conservative leaders are profound moral failures.
Probably you’ve seen this graph by now:
What it shows is that if we can delay the spread of coronavirus, mostly by reducing the rate of exposure, we can “flatten the curve” of the epidemic, thus reducing stress on the healthcare system. The curve of infections will be more gradual, and the health care system can save more lives.
But that depends on healthy young people changing their behavior.
As you probably know by now, you will probably get infected sooner or later, and if you’re healthy and young, you will have only minor symptoms, or none at all. But you can still spread the virus to other people who aren’t so lucky.
If you can delay that from happening, you will help prevent our hospitals from being filled beyond capacity, as they have been in China and Italy.
Again, young and healthy people will likely be fine. But people over 70 and those with underlying conditions (including lung diseases, diabetes, and immune problems) have between an 8 percent and 15 percent chance of dying from this virus.
Their lives depend on your behavior.
And chances are, you won’t even know that you’ve infected them. The virus lives on surfaces for three days, and can take two weeks to show up in a test. Meanwhile, you’ll be healthy as a horse and unaware that you’re infected. But you’ll have a one in 10 chance of killing someone you meet. Like those odds?
This changes everything.
It means that you need to make decisions not based on your personal health risk, but on the risk that you might kill other people. Of course, your particular decisions depend on the advice of public health officials in your area, as well as your personal circumstances and needs, but the fact that some changes are required is now a moral imperative—not for your sake perhaps, but for others’.
For example, there have been media reports of young people taking advantage of cheap airline tickets to travel around the world. Who cares?, they think, I won’t get sick.
Putting my rabbi hat on for a moment, that is profoundly wrong. This isn’t a personal health decision, like whether to eat healthy food. That’s up to you, and you pay the price for your choices. It’s a collective health decision, like getting a measles vaccine. And other people pay the price for your bad decision.
Just as anti-vaxxers endanger the lives of innocent children, so healthy people who refuse to change their behavior endanger the lives of old folks and sick folks.
In progressive circles, we call that ableist—marginalizing the needs of people whose bodies don’t “measure up” for one reason or another, ignoring the fact that different people experience this epidemic differently, and focusing only on the ‘healthy’ majority.
In religious and ethical circles, we call it immoral. And in our country right now, the rot starts from the top.
When the president of the United States tells people that the coronavirus will “miraculously” disappear soon and that it isn’t worse than the flu—both verifiably false statements—he is telling people not to worry about it, as if jingoistic rhetoric and travel bans take the place of social distancing and other protective measures. That will kill people.
When the Fox News network downplays coverage of the coronavirus, blames the “liberal media,” and promotes guests who claim this is all a conspiracy to affect the 2020 election, that will kill people too.
And when Representative Louis Gohmert (R-TX) refuses to self-quarantine after being exposed to coronavirus at a political conference, that can kill people too. (It takes up to two weeks after exposure for the novel 2019 coronavirus to show up in a test. During that time, there’s no way to know if you have it or not.)
I can’t think of a more immoral act than refusing to change your behavior when you know you’ve been exposed and that you may be carrying a lethal virus.
It’s a bitter irony that many of those downplaying the risks of COVID-19, and thus actively making those risks worse, come from the conservative side of the political spectrum.
Because, last I checked, the Bible demands that we take care of the sick, not expose them to further harm. “I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me,” says Jesus to the righteous in Matthew 25:36. And, he continues in verse 40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
For two thousand years, the “least of these” has been interpreted as referring to those who are most marginalized and most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the dispossessed.
And it’s not just individuals—it’s the community as well. The Hebrew Bible devotes hundreds of verses to public health regulations, focusing (for better or for worse) on strict diagnosis and quarantine procedures for those suspected of carrying “impurity” or disease.
These rules are divinely mandated because, despite their pre-scientific nature, the health of the community is of paramount concern to the God of the Bible. Even if that means calling off a few pep rallies.
Flattening the curve of coronavirus transmission is not a partisan issue. Quite the contrary: It’s a religious issue, a pro-life issue, a pro-family issue, a senior citizens issue, a disability rights issue. Most importantly, it’s a moral issue.
And our leaders are failing miserably.