Panic may be too strong a word, but overreact isn’t. My response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has, like so many people’s, evolved as the situation has changed, a process that seems to take hours or days rather than weeks or months. Back at the end of February, a friend with significant comorbidities asked me to help her gauge how much to worry. In a world before community transmission, before confirmed US deaths, before the disease had left the coasts, my attitude was very much “if we stop doing [x], then the terrorists win”–child of 9/11 that I am. Now that friend is “hunkered down” with us in our small town hideaway because her county in her metropolis has the highest infection rate in the region. And I’m committing to my intellectual archive the official advice that it is time to start overreacting.
I am aware that “social distancing”—which, in practice, is a euphemism for becoming a functional recluse, crossing to the other side of the street when you pass other neighborhood pedestrians out on a walk, glowering at anyone who wants to elbow bump (or, heaven forbid, shake hands), and alcohol wiping down anything that anyone touches—is an irrational overreaction to my degree of personal risk. I’m reasonably young (an affirmation that rings with less truth and more bitter nostalgia every year) and reasonably healthy. My wife is reasonably young and reasonably healthy. If either of us was to catch the disease, it is unlikely that we would develop severe symptoms, unlikely that we would face death or even substantial ill effects. It’s even possible that we could get it (or already have) without realizing, thinking it was the regular winter yuck that all educators inevitably get. We have the luxury of going out, shaking hands, licking doorknobs, etc.
We also have the luxury of financial security. We are not, of course, particularly well off, but, as educators, we have a high degree of job security and the benefit of consistent pay checks, whether or not we are actually going to work. For my wife, in the public school system, that means that when schools closed last week, she was given all the time in the world to do with as she pleased without any of the responsibilities of her job, all without the slightest modification to her monthly income. In higher education, my responsibilities didn’t decrease so much as shifted online, but I too was freed to be where I wanted, when I wanted without fear of losing my paycheck. The world is now our oyster. We get to do far less work for the same pay and do it all with nearly no obligation to be anywhere at any time. Last week, in a brief moment of blissful abandon, I even greedily eyed dirt-cheap tickets to East Asia. After all, the sakura are in bloom in Japan.
Yet it is precisely because we have so many of those luxuries that we also have a moral obligation to overreact to the current pandemic. It is both because we don’t need to and because we can that we have a responsibility to stay home, stay hygienic, and stay healthy. Far from being about the calculus of personal risk, our actions in society, our moral duties as Christians, revolve around the fallout of our actions for those without these luxuries. There are plenty of people in our society who cannot stay home and still draw a check. Essential members of the American supply chain must go to work, not only to make a living but also to provide the means of living to people who have forgotten how to provide it to ourselves. I owe it to them not to go out if I don’t need to and to take abundant precautions when I do go out. My callousness has the potential to ramify into their lives, and so I overreact as an act of compassion. I stay home because they cannot.
There are also plenty of people in our society who are not reasonably young, who are not reasonably healthy. It would be wonderfully convenient if we could vacuum seal these individuals away until the outbreak is over or until we find effective treatments or vaccines. That’s obviously not possible, and so all of us who do not need to dream of hermetically sealed bubbles to feel secure in our tomorrow need to begin living as though every precaution we take is a precaution taken on behalf of these people, every risk a risk with their lives. My boss is immunocompromised from chemotherapy. My father-in-law has an autoimmune disorder. My father lost part of his lungs to pneumonia a few years ago. When these people wear masks, self-quarantine, and obsessively clean, it is a rational response to their personal risk. When I do it, it’s an overreaction to mine. It is, nevertheless, the morally appropriate response to my obligation to them as fellow Christians, as fellow humans.
All of this strikes me as a fairly obvious extension of the “least of these” principle in Christian ethics, but it seems to be one that a certain subset of Christians cannot seem to grasp. I have been pleasantly (but genuinely) surprised by how well some of our churches have responded to the pandemic. The measures are at times half-hearted and usually too long delayed, but in general the churches in my orbit have made a real effort to do their part in stemming the tide–in flattening the curve. Too many Christians, however, distracted by the politics of the disease or confused by a diet of misinformation from partisan and social media, refuse to reflect on their response from the perspective of love, compassion, and self-sacrifice. They talk about how, if we had faith, we wouldn’t pay the disease any mind. They remind us, disingenuously that, God did not give us a spirit of fear, as though precautions equaled fear and without any regard for the fact that the spirit that was given to us in one of “love and self-control.”
To these Christians are added too many people in society at large who have yet to be convinced of the severity of what may be before us. They talk about comparisons to the seasonal flu, make unfounded and irresponsible predictions about the future, and then go on with their lives with as much normalcy as they can muster while the rest of the world tries desperately to cobble together a coordinated response. Whatever the government may do, whatever our neighbors may do, it is Christians’ responsibility to urge one another to “overreact” for the sake of everyone else.
A story trickled back to me from a minister friend of an elder at her church, arguing against modifying services, who worried aloud that when this outbreak turns out not to be as bad as we all thought, Christians don’t want to be embarrassed. Maybe he’s right, and it won’t be so bad. I hope it won’t be. I hope I look back on this post and sincerely feel that I reacted entirely out of proportion with the real threat COVID-19 posed. But, even if I do, I won’t be embarrassed. As long as Christians continue to act out of love for one another and love for God’s world, nothing should make us ashamed. Let the virtue of self-sacrifice and an overflowing of compassion be our guiding principles in this time of crisis. If it turns out that we became fool’s for Christ’s sake, so be it. We are in good company.