No one questions whether hospitals are essential, particularly in the age of COVID-19.
Yet, we need to look deeper at the macro economy that supports these institutions.
Hospitals are not standalone, self-sufficient villages. Like all businesses, they are connected to a global economy.
For a medical center to run, it needs physicians and staff, and these employees rely on a complex support system to keep them working.
That system involves countless additional workers, and all of these need to be supported both physically and emotionally.
In modern medicine, physicians and nurses are dependent upon computer technology for everything from charting to diagnostics.
All of this is supported by information technology (IT) professionals who in turn are supported by other IT firms, which need support from folks in Silicon Valley.
Each person along this chain also needs support at a more local and practical level from friends and family.
On another front, hospitals need new supplies and equipment almost daily. This involves factories filled with machines and workers.
The machines need mechanics to keep them running, which leads to the need for additional parts and equipment. Just like IT professionals, factory workers and mechanics putting in extra hours have personal needs as well.
Many employees whose work makes it possible for hospital systems to function need childcare.
Others need their cars repaired so they can get to work. Some even need help with cooking and cleaning due to long hours on the job.
This need for support creates a giant chain of essential workers who enable health care professionals to keep healing the sick and who make it possible for these workers to continue making the necessary supplies for health care systems to function.
Each and every one of these citizens have the same basic needs. Beyond food, oxygen and water, all human beings need connection, security and purpose.
We need interaction with other flesh and blood human beings, so physical distancing is not a normal human activity. It is unnatural and has been taking an emotional toll on society.
In like manner, human beings need a sense of security – to feel like we are in control of our environment.
Even as states across the United States (and countries around the world) begin slowly to reopen their economies, government officials are unable to tell us when life will get back to normal, or if life will ever get back to what it was before the pandemic.
Historically, society bands together in order to mediate feelings of instability. Churches and civic organizations are among the institutions that have fulfilled this need in the past.
Due to COVID-19, community groups are unable to meet in person, so this support is taking place virtually.
This pandemic has changed the way we think about meeting together, requiring innovations and approaches that might need to continue for the foreseeable future.
Finally, humans need a sense of purpose. It is not enough that we have food, water and shelter. We need something to do and we need to know why we are doing it.
One of the deepest philosophical questions that all people wrestle with regardless of culture is “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?” It is difficult to see how one contributes to society when you are stuck at home.
We all have these basic needs, so the longer society stays shut down, the more likely we will see a rise in anxiety and depression, which will lead to even more social problems.
This is not a call to reopen the economy too quickly, but simply an observation that we must be aware of our collective reality and be attentive to the various needs arising from the public health restrictions.
As the fabric of society has been stretched thin, we have seen how the very mechanisms that support health care workers could cease to function and the means of production greatly diminished.
At a certain point, this would affect the country’s ability to fight COVID-19 and future pandemics.
While some will think I am melodramatic, we need to realize long-term consequences exist to dialing society down for an extended period of time.
Modern societies are a complex mesh of interconnected supply chains and support systems that cannot stop without consequences.
We may try to act as if we are self-sufficient but, in reality, every human being on the planet is dependent upon other human beings for basic support.
One of the lessons we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we are dependent upon each other for support and identity.
Physical distancing strategies, while necessary at times like these, remove our ability to experience in-person human connectedness.
This necessitates that we continue to reflect on how we can balance the need to promote public health and meet our innate need for human interaction.
As we approach the summer and consider what might await us this fall, we need to remember how interconnected society is.
Just like hospitals, our lives are vast networks of support that keep us moving forward.
These networks cannot be ignored or forgotten without significant consequences.
As we continue to fight COVID-19 and prepare for the projected increase of cases in the fall, we must keep in mind the human need for interconnectedness and figure out how to protect it during future outbreaks.
Monty Self is the Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist for the Baptist Health Medical Center Little Rock.