With the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) only a few months old, we already have been taught important lessons about the human condition and our post-modern world from the responses provoked by this mostly inert variety of RNA.
The virus’s RNA genome is less than 30,000 genetic “letters” long (ours is over 3 billion.) The infected cell in our body reads the COVID-19 RNA and begins making proteins that will keep the immune system at bay and help assemble new copies of the virus. Keeping the virus away from our cells is job #1 these days.
First, we have learned that capitalism is necessary for human well-being. Much of the panic we see around the world and the major fall in the nominal prices of financial securities reflect our need for transactions, for wealth creation. We know that governments can’t provide the cash flow and jobs which markets for goods and services do. The loss of cash deflates economics and cannibalizes wealth.
A market failure on this scale can’t be replaced with government expenditures. Governments get their money from taxes and fees, in other words, from capitalist enterprise or from making more paper bills and notes (including lines of credit), one way or another. For sustainable well-being, the private sector is necessary. Markets need to be nourished so they can flourish and so fund the common good.
To reject capitalism out of hand as unneeded or hopelessly unjust is destructively foolish. Socialism can’t replicate all the good which free markets do for us.
Secondly, COVID-19 has revealed just how much we depend on each other. The virus spreads from person to person. COVID-19, therefore, teaches that we need ethics or morality. We need people to be responsible and have a care for others. Social Darwinism, where we can be all on our own in a struggle for survival without taking regard of others, is another destructive foolishness.
The first moral imperative brought to the fore by COVID-19 is taking personal responsibility for not becoming an agent of the contagion. The focus of moral responsibility, in the first place, is on individuals and in the second place, on institutions.
The third lesson concerns risk – what risks should be taken, either to live normally or to stop the virus in its tracks? How much prevention is reasonable in imposing hardships on populations and how much is inadvisable or unnecessary? The perception of risk is very high, exacerbating risk aversion and contributing to fear and refusal to enter the public square, triggering economic contraction.
Risk management, predicting the future and acting according to foresight, avoiding harms and losses is key to ethical conduct. Ethics is the study of how to manage risks to others and to what has value in our lives. But the data I have read is confusing in its implications for what is prudent in seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For example, what is the reasonable worry as to numbers likely to be infected by or succumb to the virus? In the U.S., during this past flu season, some 34 million persons came down with the flu and 34,200 of them died from the infection. The number of us who may host COVID-19 seems at present to be very low in comparison. Even in China, where the contagion has now peaked, the number of symptomatic individuals was just over 80,000.
Other “epidemics” related to our consumption and lifestyles kill many Americans annually, but do not trigger serious public risk prevention measures: there were 38,800 traffic deaths in 2019, 69,027 deaths from opioids in 2018 and 78,069 deaths from alcohol in 2017.
Fourth, we have learned that the threat of contagion is real. Without using the precautionary principle in taking preventive measures, COVID-19 could go “viral.” Our human family now is global; what happens anywhere can have an impact everywhere. Nations are still important; ethnic heritages are manifold with each one having a claim to recognition and respect. Yet, all are intertwined by economics first and then by transportation and especially information flows and cultural diffusions. COVID-19 reveals to us that we really do live in a world community and that there will be no going back to the days of intra-group autonomy, isolation and self-reliance.
Populists, nationalists and chauvinists may regret this multi-culturalization of humanity and the expansion of production, sales, business and finance to every part of every country and they may pine for ancient days of ancestral glory and pre-eminence in homelands, but there is no remedy for their regret and their sense of loss.
Fifth, angst and worry about the trajectory of COVID-19 in infecting us have grown and spread as a contagion all to itself, a psycho-social turbulence which is disrupting lives, events, communities and economies. The ease with which fear arose and spread, its power to precipitate such a determined rush to safety and the reasons prompting the susceptibility of so many to the dynamics of fear deserve study in their own rights.
Is the fear phenomenon we are living with a result of social media, where emotions and exaggerations can quickly grab our attention and excite our imaginations to think the worst? Or has globalization done something to our resilience in convincing us of our marginality, impotence and vulnerability in that we no longer trust leaders and communities?
Is not our modern sensibility of the good life one that calls on governments to protect us against harm and danger? With COVID-19, does the demand for taking responsibility for our own health and fortune – wash your hands for 20 seconds many times a day and clean surfaces before you touch them – run counter to this premise of globalization that well-designed institutions will make all things better?
Does COVID-19 also indirectly call into question the competence of the elites who manage our global institutions such that we are afraid that they will fail us? Are our institutions that well-designed to begin with? Who can we trust to protect us?
We look to institutions, but they turn the work of protection back over to us and demand accountability from each person, family and business. Must we really trust others to do their part willingly and well? Unnerving, yes?
COVID-19 threatens us directly, going around, slipping under and jumping over our institutions, out of sight of our professionals and experts. We doubt our capacity for self-protection and that leads us towards fear. We become acutely aware of our status as victim.
Fear is one of the most corrosive and destructive human states of mind. Its impact on our decisions is rarely benign or constructive.
One function of morals is to gird us for success in our battles against the dark side. Moral courage is not an oxymoron. With courage, we can be more moral and with morality, we can more easily find the courage to act.
President John F. Kennedy ended his inaugural address with these words:
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”