Articles, Essays & Sermons

In the future, here are seven things I’ll recall about our present COVID pestilence

by Ken Sehested

        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 US history.

        1. The death by suicide of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, a renowned emergency room doctor in New York City, who, 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, 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; 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.

        2. Among the radical right-wing groups protesting in several state capitols (whose rallies are coordinated and funded by wealthy donors with white nationalist sympathies) demanding the reopening of the economy, one young woman in Nashville carried a sign saying, “Sacrifice the Weak.”

        The sentiment is not new in US or in global history, of course. The 5th century BCE Greek historian Thuycydides 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.

        Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was himself a fan of Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher who wrote that the Great Commandment to love your neighbor is tantamount to “moral cannibalism,” and that those who live for others are “parasites.”

        The gunslinging hecklers’ chants for “freedom” in our state capitols demonstrate how decadent and licentious that honorable word has become.

        3. We now know that the pandemic spreads fastest in crowded quarters, e.g., prisons, nursing homes, and meat packing plants. So President Trump’s use of the Defense Production Act to order those plants to reopen is effectively an order condemning countless low-income workers, many of them people of color, to painful sickness and even death.

        It appears the only reason 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—is to disguise the actual spread of the disease and further damage his reelection campaign. Of all the cruelties and crimes he has committed, none may be more blatantly, singularly hideous.

        (As of 1 May 2020, 37 other countries had tested a higher percentage of their population than the US. Congress’ own physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, says he does not have enough COVID-19 test kits to test the 100 senators Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling back into session in the coming days.)

        4. “That's the story of healthcare in America today,” said former insurance executive Wendell Potter after the largest private health insurance provider in the US announced that it saw a significant increase in profits over the last three months while the Covid-19 pandemic killed tens of thousands and forced millions more off their employer-sponsored coverage.

        5. Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan managed to purchase 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 in recent weeks.

        6. Who can forget President Trump’s suggestion that injecting disinfectant might be a cure for the virus. Was he was being sarcastic? Watch this 1:11 video and judge for yourself.

        7. No statement I’ve heard or read in recent weeks is more telling that this one from Minnesota nurse Emily Pierskalla:

        “If I die, I don’t want to be remembered as a hero.

        “I want my death to make you angry too.

        “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.

        “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 the words and acts of appreciation popping up not just here but around the world.

        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 which 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.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org