If specific moments can serve as memory triggers for a larger historical period, I would nominate seven current headlines to characterize this COVID-19 season in U.S. history.
- The death by suicide of Lorna M. Breen, a renowned emergency room doctor in New York City.
Breen, with her colleagues, bore the brunt of treating massive numbers of COVID-19 admittances.
She eventually fell victim to the virus, took off 10 days to recover, returned to the emergency room, collapsed on the floor and then went to live with her sister in Virginia to recover.
She had no history of mental illness, was active in sports and an avid salsa dancer. She was a deeply religious person who volunteered weekly at a nursing home.
The sheer tragedy of what she was witnessing was too much to bear. Her dying should knock our socks off.
- One young woman in Nashville, Tennessee, carried a sign saying, “Sacrifice the Weak. Re-open TN.”
She was among the radical right-wing groups protesting in several state capitols to demand the reopening of the economy.
“While protesters in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and other states claim to speak for ordinary citizens, many are also supported by street-fighting rightwing groups like the Proud Boys, conservative armed militia groups, religious fundamentalists, anti-vaccination groups and other elements of the radical right,” The Guardian reported on April 17.
The sentiment is not new in U.S. or in global history, of course. The fifth century BCE Greek historian Thucydides wrote, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
This sentiment is precisely behind the Nazis’ infamous “Final Solution” to exterminate not only Jews but also homosexuals, gypsies and those with physical or mental disabilities.
Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher, wrote in her book, “The Virtue of Selfishness,” that the Great Commandment to love your neighbor is tantamount to “moral cannibalism” and that those who live for others are “parasites.”
The gun-slinging hecklers’ chants for “freedom” we’re now seeing in our state capitols demonstrate how decadent and licentious that honorable word has become.
- President Trump’s use of the Defense Production Act to order meat-packing plants to remain open.
We now know the pandemic spreads fastest in crowded quarters, for example, prisons, nursing homes and meat-packing plants.
So, this presidential directive is effectively an order condemning countless low-income workers, many of them people of color, to painful sickness and even death.
It raises new questions about why the president did not similarly act to mandate industries to gear up the production of testing kits, which every medical professional knows is essential to prevent higher levels of infection.
As of May 11, 39 other countries had conducted more tests per million in population than the U.S., according to a widely cited data aggregator.
Congress’ own physician, Brian Monahan, said in early May he did not have enough COVID-19 test kits to test the 100 senators whom Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called back into session.
- “‘That’s the story of healthcare in America today,” former insurance executive Wendell Potter tweeted on April 15.
His comment came after United Health, the nation’s largest insurance company, reported its quarterly profits had exceeded projections.
In a series of tweets, Potter contrasted the company’s thriving with the thousands in the U.S. who have died from the virus and the millions who are without jobs.
- Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, managed to buy thousands of COVID-19 test kits from South Korea.
He now has them stored in a secret location protected by members of the Maryland National Guard and State Patrol officers.
Why? To protect the shipment from being confiscated by the federal government, which has expropriated supplies ordered from private companies by other states.
- Who can forget President Trump’s suggestion that using UV light or injecting disinfectant might be a cure for the virus?
Was he was being sarcastic? Watch this C-SPAN clip and judge for yourself.
- No headline I’ve heard or read in recent weeks is more telling than this one from Minnesota nurse Emily Pierskalla, “I Want My Death to Make You Angry.”
“If I die, I don’t want to be remembered as a hero. I want my death to make you angry too,” she wrote. “I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers.
“Use my death to mobilize others. Use my name at the bargaining table. Use my name to shame those who have profited or failed to act, leaving us to clean up the mess,” Pierskalla continued. “Don’t say ‘heaven has gained an angel.’ Tell them negligence and greed has murdered a person for choosing a career dedicated to compassion and service.”
I understand our desire to encourage front-line workers – like medical professionals – with expressions of gratitude. And I sincerely hope each and every one finds a measure of comfort in these words and acts of appreciation.
But the “hero” tag should trouble us, as well.
It is too easy to do the charitable work of assigning personal gratitude while ignoring the structural fractures that recklessly put our medical professionals (among others) in harm’s way.
It’s as if we are saying, “Thank you for being willing to die, so we don’t have to change our ways.”
This is gross. This is imbecilic. This is cowardice. This is manifestly immoral.
We have no shame. God have mercy on our souls, for no other authority will suffice.
Offer your heartfelt applause as vigorously and personally as you can for those now carrying a heavy load of the public’s welfare.
But don’t let such expressions become a kind of penance that absolves us from the hard work of recasting public policies that preference the common good over private greed.
Like the virus, the market has no conscience, no purpose, no aspiration, other than to reproduce itself.
Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action. He was the founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.