Morality, Mortality, and Normality in a Pandemic Spring: A Confession

I should begin by saying that I’ve had a slightly runny nose since the middle of last week, something well within the range of normal this time of year for a father with a baby in daycare…which is still open…they take the kids’ temperatures at the door. But the situation has sent me into a moral merry-go-round. What is my responsibility under this circumstance? Certainly social distance is in order. Certainly keeping the child home from daycare would be prudent for the sake of her fellows and staff. But there are some complexities in that, marital, vocational, and educational. And it is highly unlikely I have coronavirus, which is extremely rare….so far…as we know…in these parts, but new cases everyday. I have had no fever, no sore throat, no significant coughing. But fact it can start with the sniffles. And to get tested, I was told I do not meet the criteria, is to potentially waste a rare test in a time of shortage. In Austin, where there are some 60-70 cases, only 5-10% of tests turn out to be positive. So, lots of people with sniffles are “wasting” tests. Yet not to test is to endanger others. The only safety is in resolutely not leaving the house, neither I nor my family. We’ve stocked up a bit, but we’ll need milk and things like that. Can I take the dog for a walk? I’m not in a panic per se, but a bit of a moral panic. At what point does normality become irresponsibility? At what point does normality lead to mortality? At what point does normality become sin?

Today, I listened to a terrifying podcast with a pandemic statistician. Pushing back against the implication that China did not act fast enough, he noted that China put in place a strict quarantine when they had 800 cases, within a month of recognizing the outbreak. This is accurate. They have now, apparently, stopped the spread of the virus, but over 80,000 have been infected. The statistician notes, by contrast, the United States had two months to prepare, and did practically nothing, and our quarantine can never be as strict as the Chinese restrictions. So what will that mean for us?

The coronavirus arrived in Lubbock last week, officially. A couple people had traveled through town and were later found to be infected. A student, returning from abroad, turned out to be infected, and the news articles pointed out how he had violated quarantine rules/suggestions/norms (it is not clear what is law, what is order, and what is just responsible action). He went through the airport and then had dinner at a popular tex-mex place. A former pastor who may or may not have eaten at another tex-mex place announced on a Twitter video that he had corona virus, and wanted to alert everyone to that. His video was later taken down. The latter act a reminder of the sensitivity circulating right now, and the possibility that someone here wants to play down the extent of the virus’s spread. We can only assume that there are a lot more cases running under the radar, perhaps they are mild cases, almost unidentifiable, or more severe cases that are simply not being tested.

We try to gauge this pandemic and the utility of various preventative measures statistically. There is no doubt that extreme self-isolation and social distancing are the best bet to slow its spread, and thereby give our health systems a chance to prepare and preserve its capacity to take on a “flatter” spike in cases that won’t be quite as overwhelming. China’s maximal response of quarantining entire cities of millions of people, of using Orwellian methods to make sure people move around as little as possible, have seemingly been effective, if we can trust their current statistics of no new local cases in recent days. South Korea’s more voluntary popular response to self-quarantine while providing extensive testing and case-tracing has also been remarkably effective. There is no doubt that the right thing to do elsewhere in the world, including the United States, is to settle in for a lengthy self-quarantine and maximal social distancing practice.

The problem that arises is two-fold, at least until a vaccine is approved and produced for universal use: Life, at some point, will have to go on; at some point total shutdown becomes impossible. In fact, it is impossible now, many are still necessarily working in grocery stores, food production, hospitals, medical equipment production, and all the other activities necessary for life in the world we live in. W/hat happens to these activities when the pandemic reaches its peak? We can only keep moving forward. We pray that the efforts of all who have self-quarantined will have slowed the pandemic’s progress sufficiently that the healthy system can keep up, and that soon a vaccine will be ready.

The second problem that arises is that any total shutdown, no matter how effective is not completely effective, the virus continues to circulate, and when the shutdown seems to have been effective, and quarantines are eased, new cases will start to appear and a second “bump” appears in the infection rates, and we start all over again, until the vaccine appears.

Regardless of these problems, rooted in the very nature of life on earth, the only moral response right now is to participate as fully as possible in self-quarantine and social distancing (namely staying six feet away from others at all time, washing hands frequently, disinfecting surfaces regularly, wearing masks as appropriate). And there is no doubt that the more we “over-react” the less tragic the final impact will be, and the more it will look like we “over-reacted” … when in reality it was precisely the over-reaction that made the pandemic look less bad than initially expected. It is not that the pandemic was less bad, it was just as bad, but our response was better.

So now to the confession:

We had our last church service last Sunday, we had a brief email debate that was perhaps too quickly decided. I have to confess that I advocated that we meet for service and have a council meeting to discuss next steps. I argued that we were in preparation mode not panic mode, as there were no COVID-19 cases in Lubbock yet, even if I admitted that some might be riding below the radar, and I acknowledged that not meeting was the safer course. But classes had still met in schools and at the university two days before, so I advocated for careful social distancing in accordance with CDC guidelines, and that anyone at all sick should stay home. We are a small group of only about 30 regular congregants. I suggested that we skip communion and share the peace with each other with bows rather than handshakes.

Even so, inevitably, we easily drifted well within six feet of each other, well within the reach of microscopic droplets of spit that accompany all conversation. Some even put arms over the shoulders of others. Some, among our older congregation inevitably had sniffles, perhaps allergies, perhaps common colds. The potential dangers were legion, and there remains no way to know what kind of danger we were in, we don’t know if COVID-19 was present among us that day, or if it left with anyone new that day, and spread with us into the community. We don’t know, and we won’t know. The virus will start to spread, some of us may get it, whether anyone got it there we will probably never know.

The day before we spent the afternoon with two friends for brunch, it is highly unlikely that either of them had COVID, but who knows. On Saturday, and again on Monday, I went to the gym and did my normal 30-minute rowing workout. I was doing really well with them, the best times I’d had in a couple years, so I wanted to continue. I figured, the virus is not yet in town, the gym is emptier than normal, and I can spray down the machine with sanitizer before and after the workout. I had great workouts both days. But I did think, on Monday (possibly it was Tuesday) afternoon, after spending much of the day on campus, having not eaten lunch, do I really need to do this? What is the point of being healthy and then catching a disease that could damage my lungs? But I worked out anyway.

I came home, in a wet t-shirt, had some lunch and answered some emails, and then got sleepy and lay down for a 15 minute nap. But I felt great, as I normally do after a good workout, until the middle of the night. That night I was restless, which is not unusual, and I developed a headache that was with me the rest of the next day. It felt like a dehydration headache, but I didn’t think I was dehydrated. The next day I felt like a mild cold coming on, which sometimes happens when I do a high-intensity workout after skipping lunch, that seems to be a little hard on the immune system. And either that day or the next day, I called my health care provider and asked about it. The nurse said I did not fit the criteria for testing. No fever, no significant coughing, no sore throat. The only thing I could say was that I felt a slight tightness in my lungs, a symptom which may have been psychosomatic for all I can know. The next day my lungs felt clear, but I had a slightly stuffy nose. And the runny nose lasted the rest of the week, with no other symptoms other than a slight fatigue. I was very deliberate about eating well, and resting midday for a bit, hoping to maintain a strong immune response to whatever I had.

It was highly unlikely that I had COVID-19 for all the reasons stated above. Only a few cases had been identified anywhere near Lubbock, and I did not have the main symptoms of fever, sore throat, coughing, shortness of breath. But I could not know.

The nurse who spoke to me said that she had no recommendation about bringing the baby to daycare, it was up to me. But, on Thursday we kept our 18-month old home from daycare, just in case of the possibility that I had a very mild case, and that she might therefore have a mild case that could be passed on to others. They had not yet announced a school closure for the week after spring break, and the daycare is dedicated to remaining open as long as possible. They no longer let parents into the facility, and they take the children’s temperature when they arrive. They have not yet been presented with a child with a fever. Feeling better on Friday, and with no telltale symptoms, after some heated debate, we sent her to daycare.

I was quite torn about that whole decision, about whether we needed her out of the house in order to do our work, as we are both working from home now, as to whether we needed to take the risk of sending her to daycare, and over whether there was even the slimmest of possibilities that I, via her, might introduce the infection into the daycare. If that act resulted in a staff member, or a child, and then their families and friends to get infected, that would be a grave sin, and probably criminally negligent under any other circumstance. Anyone thereby infected would have the right to hold me personally responsible for any suffering and death suffered as a result of that irresponsible, community-destroying negligence.

And I would have to live with myself as the cause of sickness and death to innocents. I am, therefore grateful that I don’t (think) I have corona virus, and therefore I cannot be held responsible directly for other infections. I am grateful that I don’t believe coronavirus was present or passed on during our last worship service, but if anyone gets it we will never know whether that was the source or not. We will never know.

And that is the final conundrum. While it is a societal responsibility to do what we can to habitually act in ways that reduce the spread of the virus, we cannot begin to hold each other morally responsible for “killing” others as a result of our normal actions. We cannot hold other countries responsible for “sickening” us. Or can we? Would it not be insane to hold grudges, file lawsuits, or seek revenge against whoever we think it was that caused an infection? And by that rationale, we find that this kind of communal crisis can only be addressed with communal responses. Yet, terrible decisions await us. Medical professionals in particular will be faced with soul-rending decisions about who they can treat, who get beds, masks, respirators…when to declare themselves sick, when to protect themselves. They will not escape this without severe emotional trauma. But employers face similar decisions, who to fire and when, government administrators will be faced with questions of how severely to enforce quarantines and social distancing, balanced against the freedoms of a democratic society and the needs of the whole population for a functioning economy, even amidst a pandemic.

Ideally, we can slow the spread to a manageable rate, and introduce a vaccine in time to prevent a secondary spike of infections once restrictions are lifted. But we will not escape great harm to lives and livelihoods. We need to give and receive grace, not merely forgiveness, but recognition that life requires love that overcomes the trauma of the world, including that of our own creation. Our church worshipped from home this Sunday, using the regular order of service. Angie and I and baby said some of the prayers together, read the readings, and sang Amazing Grace…that song about impossible grace, mercy, and forgiveness claimed by a former slave trader, who in claiming that, via confession, claims precisely what Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says is possible, that by becoming visible, the dark becomes light. In the context of pandemic statistics, as we’ve seen, making the bad news public, acknowledging what is happening, what has gone wrong. In making it plain, we can see what’s happening and take productive steps. Same goes for life itself.

And I have to confess, I was kind of hoping that I did have the mildest case of COVID ever, and would escape this trial in such comfort…but that wish is also a wish to have infected those around me. I cannot wish for that.

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