The COVID-19 pandemic has been a cruel reminder that we are far more fragile, individually and collectively, than most of us imagine when times are good. It takes surprisingly little—a sudden shift of tectonic plates, a new submicroscopic particle—to turn a life or a whole society upside down. Modern wealth and technology foster illusions of security and control, but we are still subject to countless life-threatening risks. Some we’re aware of, some we aren’t. As science conquers one disease, another emerges; and in the time it takes for science to catch up—the time we’re all living through now—thousands or millions of lives may be lost. Yes, by all means, trust science (and be grateful to the scientists), but don’t imagine it will ever rid the world of mortal harms.
One function of the world’s great religious traditions is to remind us of our fragility and to prepare us for death—our own deaths and the deaths of those we love. These traditions may disagree about what, if anything, follows death, but they all agree on its centrality to life. To live in denial of death, they teach us, is no better than to live in constant fear of it.
A few weeks before the full scale of the current crisis became evident, we lined up in churches to be reminded of our mortality: You are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Now, in the Easter season, we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, but not his escape from it: he triumphed by “trampling death by death”—that is, by dying. Resurrected, he promises us an eternal life beyond death, but he doesn’t promise to spare us the experience of dying or the pain of bereavement. Instead, he shares it with us, thereby investing it with a new meaning. This is why Christians can mourn without despair, and now is a time for mourning.
It is also a time for anger. While all human lives and communities are fragile, some are more fragile than others. People all over the world are now learning the hard way that they were much more vulnerable than they should have been because of bad political decisions, or feckless indecision.
When the new coronavirus was first discovered at the end of last year, Chinese authorities wasted precious weeks trying to hide it, more concerned about its potential political and economic impact than about the health of their people. We now know that by the time China acted to contain the virus, it had already spread far beyond Wuhan, the city where it first emerged. Other nations would repeat this mistake, waiting too long to act because they feared the economic repercussions. Rigorous, well-coordinated travel restrictions might have bought their health-care systems the time they needed to prepare for the worst, but such restrictions seemed unimaginable to politicians for whom it is an article of faith that trade and tourism must never be disrupted. A similar lack of imagination had kept them from stockpiling the medical equipment they would need in case of a pandemic that experts warned was only a matter of time. (These politicians have been less improvident when it comes to stockpiling weapons.)
To his credit, President Donald Trump did restrict travel from China in late January, but in the following month he did little else to stop the virus as it spread largely undetected throughout the country. By the time he cut off travel from Europe, the main source of the outbreak in New York, it was too late to make any difference. And it was already much too late to make up for his administration’s long record of ignoring and sidelining the people charged with preparing the country for a pandemic. The Trump White House’s narrow conception of national security left no room for such people; they were relegated to the neglected ranks of underfunded federal agencies. When Trump could no longer get away with calling the virus a hoax or dismissing it as no worse than the flu, he turned to congratulating himself for recognizing the gravity of the situation before anyone else. He bragged that “he felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” He announced that he was now a wartime president, while refusing to make use of his war powers to ensure that the nation’s hospitals had enough personal protective equipment and ventilators. Perhaps his greatest dereliction of duty has had to do with testing. First he claimed that every American who wanted a test for the virus could get one; when this still wasn’t true weeks later, he suggested that testing was no longer so important; when its importance had become clear to everyone, he claimed it was the governors’ responsibility, not his. Even now there is no comprehensive national plan for testing and tracking—the key to controlling the current outbreak and preventing a second one later this year.
Such failures of leadership, here and abroad, have led to the greatest global crisis in living memory. We cannot afford to forget that, now or after the emergency recedes. The public officials whose negligence and shortsighted priorities have left us so vulnerable to a foreseeable danger must be held to account.