As the first wave of COVID-19 patients floods our hospitals, we hold our breath while those at the helm decide our fate in coming weeks and months. Yet, in this high-stakes moment, it might be wise to exhale and ask some questions. Here is one: How might Catholic social thought (CST) help leaders formulate a smart, responsible course of action as they navigate the coronavirus waves still to come?
Before delving into this question, let us first affirm our shared humanity, our shared vulnerability, while also recognizing that some persons and groups in the United States are more exposed to suffering and death than others, and some countries are more vulnerable to the pandemic than others. Out of gratitude and as a matter of justice, let us commit to supporting the many essential-service providers who are taking on greater risk for the sake of others, and let us resolve to cooperate with and assist other nations as best we can, especially in the Global South.
Whether it is stormy or calm, CST can serve as a moral compass. Through every season CST upholds personal responsibility, the value of a vibrant civil society, and the duty of government to protect the common good while caring especially for the poor and vulnerable. Public officials and ordinary citizens alike are called to cooperate in a spirit of shared responsibility and service to the community, especially during crises. In solidarity, we can and should meet the current challenge together. It follows that we must call out and hold accountable those individuals and groups who attempt to use a crisis to advance their own selfish agenda (with North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr and Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler as Exhibit A).
For Catholics, any strategic policy response to the present crisis also needs to be based on our best available grasp of a complex, unfolding reality. Currently the best possible understanding comes from epidemiologists, public-health researchers, and experienced policy-makers attuned to the economic, social, and public-health impacts of this and previous pandemics the world has faced. In other words, Catholics value rational, evidence-based policy-making. Informed by past and ongoing research, the insights and recommendations of experienced scientists make a vital contribution to our collective choices, in part because their combined work generates a more accurate account of the situation we face. Situated closer to the truth, we tend to make better policy decisions.
Fortunately, a science-based consensus on national strategy to combat the pandemic has emerged among experts in recent weeks; numerous op-eds, interviews, reports, and other public statements by seasoned professionals have converged around a balanced mitigation-and-transition plan that, if adopted, would unfold in four stages over the next two years. (One representative example of a detailed plan is here; a summary of the consensus emerging among various proposals is here.)
The crucial question now is whether good political leadership guided by expertise will be forthcoming. During the next two months (stage 1), the consensus plan requires the Trump administration, Congress, and state governors to cooperate in achieving four goals. First, the politicians must put aside differences and rally around the consensus plan quickly. That such an accomplishment is improbable does not make it any less necessary. Our expectations ought to match the stakes, even if the odds are long. Second, the politicians must hand the microphone over to public-health officials who will communicate to the American people that we now have a solid, science-based strategy for managing COVID-19 to its end and for dealing with future pandemics. Provided with a sense of direction and purpose, I wager the citizenry will respond with immense energy and do what it takes. Millions will rise to the occasion, inspired by the equivalent of JFK’s famous “ask not” call to action and a remarkably refreshing demonstration of principled, bipartisan leadership.
Remember, hope too is contagious. But without a vision, the people perish.
Third, the consensus plan calls for quickly extending strict social distancing nationally and continuing it for at least the next two months. This hardship is necessary to “flatten the curve” and buy time to ramp up acute-care resources and delivery capacity, especially in NYC and other high-case locales. Each state must move quickly to assist the homeless and other vulnerable groups, while also releasing nonviolent offenders from prison facilities at high risk of becoming virus cesspools. States and cities also should mandate mortgage and rent moratoriums immediately, and Congress should immediately pass legislation mandating extended paid sick leave for all essential-service workers. And fourth, over the next two months the federal government must: (1) fund and coordinate the accelerated production of medical supplies, equipment, and facilities needed to cope with the fast-rising case wave, invoking the Defense Production Act if necessary; (2) fund and coordinate the training and deployment of a large testing and contact-tracing crew (or an even larger crew of public-health workers that test entire communities on a door-to-door basis); and (3) mandate that Big Pharma prioritize vaccine and antiviral development.
During stage 2, from early June into next year, we navigate toward place-specific relaxations of the shutdown coupled with a massive ramping up of testing and contact tracing aimed at identifying the infected and isolating/treating them as quickly as possible. We also need to expand blood testing to identify the immune, who can return to work or be recruited to assist healthcare systems under severe stress. In addition, the federal government likely will have to increase substantially the emergency financial assistance it just authorized. In stage 2, schools and businesses will re-open when it’s safe with new public-health protocols in place.
We enter stage 3 if and when a proven vaccine is developed (hopefully as early as next spring, but current projections vary) or when herd immunity is built up sufficiently. Government oversight of vaccine production and distribution will be necessary to guard against fraud and profiteering, and to ensure the poor and vulnerable get vaccinated. During stage 4, as the pandemic is brought under control, a national commission will need to convene to develop a comprehensive, long-term strategy in anticipation of future public-health threats.
Is the federal government exercising too much power or playing too heavy-handed a role in this plan, as some conservatives and libertarians fear? Ethicists informed by CST say this is a matter of prudential judgment dependent on context. In CST, the scope of governmental authority is regulated broadly by the principle of subsidiarity: a higher level of government only steps in to assist local communities and coordinate their activities when lower-level authorities cannot cope with a problem or challenge on their own.
As with Hurricane Katrina, it seems obvious that such is the case at present. A larger role for the federal government is a practical necessity. The “wartime mobilization” analogy appears apt, and so in this all-hands-on-deck scenario the questions can and should turn to best methods and procedures for protecting the common good, which is conceived holistically and thus takes account of economic and social factors as well as public-health concerns.
Absent leaders with a moral compass and the wisdom to heed scientific counsel, however, I fear we may be headed for a shipwreck of titanic magnitude. In that case the body politic—its survivors washed up on the shore, still sick and gasping for air—will find it more difficult than ever to rebuild the US and launch into the future healthy and free.
Let us not allow the coronavirus crisis, at once both a major threat and a major opportunity to build a new American solidarity and stronger body politic, to lay waste to what we love. Let us not squander this crisis by failing to forge an alternative future.