Just to help clarify our thinking, let’s imagine an unpleasant possibility: that sooner or later, we’ll all be infected with the Covid virus.
This isn’t an outlandish idea. Masks and social distancing haven’t stopped the spread of the disease. The virus has continued to spread—at an accelerated rate, recently—despite painful and intrusive government restrictions on our behavior. The vaccines are unproven at best; they may not work, and their potential side effects are daunting. Experts (some experts, anyway) tell us that herd immunity is not a realistic prospect for the foreseeable future.
There are other experts who say that we are actually very close to herd immunity. Although their arguments are largely ignored by the mainstream media (which prefer the sensational bad news) and by ambitious politicians (who enjoy their newfound control), I found these experts more persuasive. But in this column I am not addressing the scientific arguments—which I am not competent to assess in any case. I am conducting a thought experiment. What if we are all going to be infected?
So suppose that you know that eventually you will have the disease. If you’re in reasonably good health, it’s very unlikely that Covid will kill you. You might have no symptoms at all. Or you might be miserable for a few days, even a few weeks. There may be some lingering effects. But you’ll probably live.
If you know your day with the disease is coming, you can do a few things to increase the likelihood of a quick recovery. Eat a healthy diet. Make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamin D. Exercise regularly. Don’t smoke. Use alcohol in moderation. In other words, do your best to stay healthy, with your immune system functioning at its best. But of course, you should do all that anyway.
Should you wear a mask, keep your distance, stay at home? Not for your own sake. What would be the point? In our scenario you know that you will contract the virus some day. Why postpone the inevitable? You may even prefer to catch a mild dose right away, while you’re feeling fit. Who knows? A more virulent strain of the disease might be coming, and people who have already survived one bout will probably be immune. Although you’re healthy now, who knows what medical problems might crop up in the future, so that you won’t be ready to combat the infection? All things considered it may seem better to live your normal life, accepting the fact that some day you will be infected.
You’ve been encouraged to wear a mask for the sake of others, though, on the theory that you might be infected without knowing it, and thus you could pass along the virus to others. In our scenario this logic is questionable, too. If everyone is doomed to catch Covid sooner or later, how much should you sacrifice to postpone someone else’s day of reckoning? For the vast majority, a bout with Covid will be an inconvenience. Does that sound insensitive? Bear in mind that most of the people who contract the virus will experience no noteworthy symptoms. Granted, others will suffer though something more than just an ordinary “inconvenience.” But you can’t prevent that.
Ah, but there is another scenario, and it’s one that has been sketched for you again and again. Even though you feel fine, you could be infected unawares, and you might pass along the virus to someone else, and that someone could be vulnerable, and so you might be indirectly and unintentionally responsible for a Covid fatality. The odds are heavily stacked against that prospect, but it is not impossible. Needless to say, you don’t want to be responsible for a neighbor’s untimely death.
Now wait; let’s take a careful look at the ground we’ve just covered. What is an “untimely” death, in this context or any other? (Is there ever such a thing as a “timely” death?) We shall all face death; we don’t know when. “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” Jesus warns us. [Mt 25:13]
Catholics boldly proclaim that every human being has the right to life. But no one has a “right” to escape death. We cannot protect our neighbors from the prospect of death by natural causes, and disease is a natural cause. Of course we avoid actions that would be likely to spread disease, and so responsible people stay home when they are sick. But we cannot eliminate every possible avenue of infection. As long as people live with others, some disease will spread and for some, the disease will be fatal.
Let me take my thought-experiment one step further. Imagine that—contrary to fact—you could predict the time of your own death. Imagine that you knew that you would be dead in a month. Would you want to isolate yourself from your neighbors, friends, and relatives? Would you withdraw from social life entirely? Instead, wouldn’t you want to do what you could, while you could, to enjoy the company of those you love?
Or suppose you knew that you would be dead within a year, but the exact date could be sooner or later, depending on what precautions you took. Then would you withdraw, to stay alone in a sterile room and try to stretch out your term on earth as long as possible? Or would you still want to live a normal life? How many weeks of normalcy would you trade for an extra week of isolation?
Stonewall Jackson was renowned not only for his strategic brilliance but also for his personal bravery in battle. When asked how he could appear untroubled by the shells that burst around him, he answered: “God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me.” That’s good advice for anyone to follow, while we wait for the Covid panic to subside.
[The post is re-posted with permission from the Catholic Culture site: www.catholicculture.org.]