Finding Precedent, Perspective and Our Place in the “Unprecedented”
May 14, 2020
by Christian Medical & Dental Associations®
by Ian Jackson, MD
Renowned British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once said: “All news is nothing more than new people experiencing old things.” Over the last weeks accumulating into months, the word “unprecedented” has quickly become a favorite and frequently used description of the COVID-19 times we are living in. Yet I find this word increasingly irritating and riddled with irony. There is, of course, nothing unprecedented when it comes to suffering and death, two undeniable factors inherent in the experience of humanity and life itself. History shows us a pattern of catastrophe. In actuality, what is novel amidst our current situation is merely our response to it this time.
What seems totally new to us, has actually happened recurrently in our world’s past: the Bubonic plague of the 1300s (225 million deaths), Spanish flu of 1918 (50 million deaths), smallpox, smatterings of cholera, diphtheria and typhoid, as well as even more recent diseases like HIV/AIDs starting in the 1970s/80s (20 to 40 million deaths to date). Yet, in the past, we have had less capacity to afford a response as drastic as what we are seeing today, with stay at home orders, business closures and the like, thereby subsidizing our response with unemployment assistance and writing ourselves checks. The lockdown of the “Land of the Free” is possibly the most unprecedented part of COVID-19.
The concept of freedom is interesting in itself and often misunderstood. There is always a balance or tension between individual and collective freedom, for often the freedoms of one person unchecked will impose upon the freedoms of another. A freedom to drink alcohol without driving restrictions would affect the freedom of a victim of a drunk driver; a freedom to take whatever one wants or needs encroaches on the freedom of those who are stolen from; self-defense hurts the attacker; free market of alcohol, tobacco and Coca-Cola all infringes on the health of those who indulge; free speech can offend the ears of others; minimum wage and benefits affront a company’s bottom line; and the allowance of abortion disrupts the fetus’s right to life. We must admit that we even ourselves are blinded to the myriad ways our actions and freedoms affect those around us. And ironically, total freedom entails some kind of subjugation, for within the total freedom to eat, drink, inject, indulge and even view pornography, many have been addicted, their absolute freedom becoming the chains of their bondage. Law is a society’s imposing of restrictions on certain freedoms in order to preserve more valuable freedoms. With freedom being so ingrained into the American culture, history and foundation, it has been ironic to see how easily we have given up our right to assembly and mobility within our society, while some have held so tightly to their right to bear arms for decades despite the annual lives lost to gun violence (2017: 39,773 deaths, of which 14,542 were homicides and 23,854 were suicides).
As I try to get my mind around deaths from COVID-19 worldwide nearing 300,000, I find my mind considering other numbers. Like how our country threw men at the enemy in World War II, with 400,000 American deaths (4,000 Allied troop deaths alone on D-Day). I think of these men running headfirst toward their enemy like bullets while many of us hide at home now from ours. Or the yearly droves of malaria cases with more than 200 million cases per year (around 400,000 deaths yearly, half of which are in select parts of Africa). We tolerate death in other locations yet become unglued when it hits close to home. Consider the 600,000 to 900,000 abortions that occur in America each year with Planned Parenthood rallying to keep this “essential” medical service alive and well amidst COVID-19. This sense of urgency for life that we are witnessing now, where was it before?
As our government implores us to “stay home, stay safe,” I ponder the inherent subjectivity and inconsistency of both “home” and “safe.” There are many in our world and even around us who lack a home at all: the homeless and refugees in transition. Some might be reluctant to call their brick and mortar dwelling a “home,” like the institutionalized, foster children and orphans, prisoners, all living with strangers, some of their environments sterile and cold. Neither is safe so easy to define, and there are those whose homes are undoubtedly unsafe. The order to confine to one’s dwelling for some is an order to remain close with an abuser or a negligent parent or a drug or gang infested project. With 35.7 million Americans living alone, for many it is an encouragement to stay that way. We may be safe from a sickness yet vulnerable to snacking, sloth, financial ruin or just plain fear. Separating ourselves from the benefits of community with others is arguably dangerous.
We hear stories of people viewing trying times as periods of unification and a showcase of the best of humanity, whether the World Wars or September 11. Yet this is tempered by stories of fights at Walmart over toilet paper. What’s ironic is how unity now is taking the form of social distance, as if that is really something new. In our society of social media, online shopping, gaming and binge streaming, we have been drifting toward social distance for some time. Tongue in cheek, I fear that between the internet and Zoom conference gatherings, we may realize that physical interaction is unnecessary, even obsolete to virtual; our current life hailed as the “new norm.” Some say quarantine is allowing a return to the importance of the family unit and is stripping us of our idols and distractions from what really matters. I fear, though, that we as humans are incredibly adept at developing new cravings, obsessions and addictions. And when this is all over, will we have changed or will life snap back to what it was before, like lights flickering in a power outage? Any new routine or healthy development forged in this season is taking place in a vacuum of sorts; scientists know the wide difference that exists between in vitro and in vivo environments. What we are now living is not normal life, and any new practices are suspect, in my mind.
These days I struggle with the tough questions, like:
- Was that sniffle I had last week COVID-19 and have I been spreading it to the masses unknowingly?
- If influenza kills 20,000 to 60,000 Americans every year (250,000 to 500,000 worldwide), should the lockdown become an annual tradition, or why hasn’t it already?
- What will be the fallout of labeling the majority of our society as “nonessential?”
- Why am I complacent regarding the suffering of others; am I thus complicit in it?
- Am I an irresponsible citizen for going out yesterday to pick up some donuts?
Life is complex. It is a balancing act requiring multi-dimensional awareness and near-sightedness coupled with distance vision. As our lives are inundated with media and commentary of an increasingly singular focus, I feel as if I am living life while peering through a microscope. If you’ve ever done that literally, peripheral vision is non-existent. Life is deeply sacred and worth preserving, but I find now a conflict/tension between life as a whole and the parts that make it meaningful, namely community, family and relationships. I am increasingly torn between obeying government and exercising full life. There is a difference between living and simply breathing, existing. We are more than walking petri dishes. The significance of a life is not determined by its length, for we are each of immense value to those who know and depend on us; we each are essential.
As COVID-19 deaths mount, we are eager for an accurate mortality rate to be measured for this deadly virus (estimated overall around 0.51 perecent, but varying with comorbidities and disease severity). The last time I checked, life itself has a 100 percent case fatality rate. Life is dangerous. Risk is nothing new. With around 40,000 deaths per year in America from motor vehicle accidents, driving to work each morning starts to look either like an act of faith or one of denial. I hear anew the cry of the revolutionaries and slaves of our nation’s past, “give me liberty or give me death,” and I find life worth living in spite of the risks.
So where does this leave us, sifting through seeming chaos? In the midst of uncertainty, we must cling to that which is certain: the immense hope we have eternally in Christ. No wonder so many are crumbling under the weight of uncertainty around us that was always there but just not thrust in our faces in the same way. I grieve those facing this crisis without the hope and peace of life beyond this life. To those who believe, let not your faith depend on physical circumstances, lest your life become the shifting sand of a poor faith foundation. Through Christ, we should be the calm in any storm; a readily visible, stark contrast. As the two faithful servants in Matthew 25, let us be faithful with what we have and the responsibility and place we find ourselves in during this season.
As we grapple with our lives as we know them in this season, remember that it is those who live in unprecedented times who have the weighty task of setting the precedent. What will yours be?
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