COVID and the Unmasking of Selfishness

I remember well Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statement early in our US response to the COVID pandemic that he and other virologists are doing their jobs if the nation overreacts to the virus threat. That made a lot of sense to me: why not employ everything we can find to protect each other from this pandemic? It was wise to close restaurants, do school from home, and limit the number of people allowed in essential businesses.

Then the overreaction strategy hit the reality of a virus that is obviously around for quite a while. Are we willing to use every possible precaution to limit infections, even if it means that many businesses go under, that socially-fragile children suffer from lack of the physical community that schools provide, and that the most vulnerable in hospitals have to die alone? Our reaction to these challenges has been mixed.

Some think we should do whatever it takes to keep the economy healthy. In the spring Republican Lt. Gov. Patrick of Texas even called on the elderly to sacrifice their lives on the altar of keeping Wall Street healthy. Thankfully, his crassness became a national laughingstock, but the concept doubtless won some secret admirers.

Fortunately, sanity reigned in most quarters, and we spent the summer with a number of limitations in place that succeeded in slowing down the spread of the disease. The Northeast appears to have figured it out the best. This former epicenter of infection now has some of the lowest percentages of COVID cases in the country. From my distance in Texas it looks like the sacrifice paid off. 

The virus has had much freer reign in the middle of the country, in the South, and in Texas. Those of us in these states have been eager to through off limitations, especially as the spread of the virus slowed over the summer. How easy it has been to decide Fauci-style cautiousness is impractical in the long run, with the result of loosening more and more restrictions and, thereby, ushering in the second wave of the virus. Europe has been relaxing social limitations, too, with the result that the virus is surging again there, too.

Our society’s response to COVID is quite complicated. I understand that the human capacity for retaining limitations on our privileges over the long haul is impossible for many of us. We simply will not tolerate the sacrifice of our individual rights, especially in a culture where many politicians have perpetrated for decades the mantra that government authority is the problem. Sometimes government is the problem. But government is also central to finding solutions for many challenges. And the default alternative to working with government on solutions appears for many to be submission to an unrestrained free market and obeisance to the oligarchy of global corporations. That approach inevitably places the economic welfare of boardrooms above mainstream Americans.

However, it is also true that when a society sublimates its need to produce and consume for an extended time because of the virus, the result may be a catastrophic economic depression. You simply cannot shut the whole thing down indefinitely. How many people can we tolerate being unemployed? How deeply in debt can we go through economic stimuli to struggling businesses and non-profits? And we have to weigh the psychological toll of isolation against the benefits of restricting the virus. At the end of the day, we may want to be the kind of people who embrace the Faucian call for precaution, but as a society we are loathe to sacrifice individual privileges if there’s any way to avoid it.

In the midst of all this I’m wondering about selfishness. My inclination personally is to be as careful as possible with the virus, especially when the precautions are a mild inconvenience for me. It only makes sense to wear a mask as much as possible. Medical personnel have survived with extensive mask wearing for quite a long time. It doesn’t hurt us. It’s just annoyingly inconvenient. 

But in Texas, and other parts of the country where we generally tip the balance toward individual freedom rather than the common good, many simply refuse to wear masks. The reasons are surely many and easy to justify, or rationalize. But it often feels like selfishness. I imagine that if a person wears a mask daily for a month and one other person is prevented from getting the disease, then it’s worth it, only costing some personal annoyance. Yet for others, wearing a mask symbolizes succumbing to the wrong kind of authoritarianism, which then triggers a deeply engrained commitment to personal freedom. And here we arrive at one of our national tragic flaws: the tendency to privilege the individual over the community, which, to my way of thinking is often a submission to selfishness.

Having said that, I hope I have offered adequate recognition that the way to address this pandemic is absolutely not cut and dried. There are many complicating factors to weigh, and some tip in the direction of taking keen precautions and some tip in the direction of focusing on reasonable levels of risk. Yet, it seems painfully obvious to me that wherever we fall out, we are pandemically susceptible to make choices based on selfishness as individuals or tribes. And, whichever direction selfishness might lead us, is not the direction of following Jesus, who insisted that we have to love others as much as we love ourselves

One final word. I was diagnosed with COVID-19 a couple days ago. Symptoms aren’t too bad. I have no idea where I picked up the virus. I wear a mask in public, but I have also chosen to teach one class face-to-face (actually “mask-to-mask”) and to preach maskless each week in a church. Obviously, my approach has been to compromise between a certain level of caution and a certain kind of risk, a decision that doubtless reflects the tension in me between my own brand of rationalized selfishness and the compassion for others to which I aspire. 

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