As of this writing, the new coronavirus illness known as Covid-19 has spread to at least 76 countries, infected nearly 100,000 people and killed over 3,000 worldwide. Even as the spread of the virus has slowed in China, the epicenter of the outbreak, cases are cropping up in communities across the United States, where 12 people have died thus far. This includes cases with no connection to foreign travel, suggesting the virus has been spreading undetected for longer than first estimated. Any pretense that this outbreak could be contained through purely defensive measures—travel restrictions on affected countries and quarantines for returning citizens, for example—is gone. The coronavirus poses a public risk; no individual or country is immune from infection. As such, it requires a proactive, public response centered on the common good.
This response has both individual and structural elements. On the individual level, each person must decide how they can best protect their own health without jeopardizing the well-being of their neighbors. This means neither over- or underreacting. Hoarding goods, especially face masks and hand sanitizer, may provide healthy individuals with the illusion of safety, but it does so by potentially putting health care workers and other caregivers at greater risk if they are unable to access these supplies.
On the individual level, each person must decide how they can best protect their own health without jeopardizing the well-being of their neighbors.
On the other hand, not taking appropriate precautions can also hurt high-risk populations. While Covid-19 is not life-threatening to the vast majority of people (according to one U.S. expert, 80 percent of cases are mild and patients “spontaneously recover”), for the elderly and people with certain underlying medical conditions the mortality rate could be as high as 15 percent. Otherwise healthy individuals who are tempted to ignore guidelines for hygiene practices, social distancing or voluntary quarantine orders must realize that what might feel like the common cold to them could pose a serious threat to their neighbors. They should act accordingly.
There are members of our communities, however, for whom missing work or keeping a sick child home from school to minimize the risk of spreading the virus is not just a temporary inconvenience. Just as some people are at a higher physical risk from the virus, many Americans are more vulnerable to the economic effects of the outbreak. They include the one-third of workers—and two-thirds of low-wage earners—who do not have paid sick leave. Many of these people work in the service sector—restaurants, hotels, retail, home care—where they are regularly in contact with the public. Enabling a sick employee to take time off to get medical care without losing a job or being unable to pay rent is not only a matter of justice for and solidarity with that employee—it is also a proactive defense of public health for the entire community.
The outbreak could also exacerbate well-known cracks in the U.S. health care system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that employers encourage sick employees to stay home and that they develop “nonpunitive leave policies” in response to the coronavirus outbreak. While in the present crisis, workers may have no choice but to rely on the good will (or risk-aversion) of their employers, the country would be in a better position to contain the spread of this and future epidemics if universal paid sick leave guaranteed that workers did not have to choose between paying their bills and limiting the risk of communal infection.
The outbreak could also exacerbate well-known cracks in the U.S. health care system. The 27 million people in the United States without health insurance and millions more with high-deductible plans may forgo a trip to the doctor for fear of leaving with an exorbitant bill. “In a potential pandemic, the last thing you want people to do is thinking twice about going to the doctor,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told The Washington Post. Yet, instead of Congress putting forward legislation that has any chance of passing to fill in gaps in the existing system, political energy is still tied up in fights over the Affordable Care Act in the courts.
The $8.3 billion bipartisan emergency response bill passed by the House on March 4 will bring much-needed resources and relief to federal agencies and state governments working to contain the spread of Covid-19 and develop a vaccine. But here too, stopgap measures are no replacement for well-funded, fully staffed health agencies and a health care system that incentivizes proactive detection and treatment for diseases that threaten the nation’s health and economy.
As urgent as such longer-term structural reforms are, for now, the primary response to the coronavirus outbreak will come at the state, community and individual levels. For most U.S. Catholics, it will entail relatively small disruptions like scrapping travel plans or not receiving Communion from the cup at Mass. Just as our Lenten penance is meant to deepen our relationship with God and our solidarity with all who suffer as the Lord did, we can allow these sacrifices and inconveniences in our daily lives to direct our prayers toward those who have died and their loved ones, our attention toward those who ill or facing financial hardship and our actions toward strengthening the common good, both at home and abroad. The coronavirus poses a threat that knows no borders. As Catholics, neither does our love and concern for our neighbors.