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  • Writer's pictureCole Feix

Moral Leadership in the Crisis

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Coronavirus Patients in Tehran | Photo: Mohsen Atayi

Fighting For Clarity

Even as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, the world is gaining clarity about the coronavirus pandemic. The number of confirmed cases worldwide is up to 737,670 as of this morning, with 35,000 deaths. The U.S. has the most confirmed cases of any nation, 142,410, which is probably a combination of population and testing. After a slow start, the U.S. now leads the world in the number of people tested, approaching 750,000. New developments in testing capacity are being released every day, and along with medical trials being conducted on chloroquine and other drugs, and sanitizing N95 masks, testing remains the single most important factor in slowing down the spread of the virus.

The President extended the social distancing measures through May as experts are forecasting that the growth rates may not reverse until later in April. Dr. Fauci predicted this weekend that the death toll in the U.S. might reach as high as 200,000. Governors have begun to close state borders and issue “shelter in place” orders to keep their people safe. Many local governments have issued travel advisories for anyone coming from high-risk areas like New York and New Jersey.

Healthcare professionals and government leaders continue to work around the clock to keep people safe, and thousands of people have volunteered to help on the front lines. Continue to pray for, encourage, serve, and reach out to these heroes who are putting their lives on the line during this crisis.

As Christians, we have to keep praying. We must continue to pray with increasing fervor and frequency that God would intervene to stop the virus, heal the sick, guide our leaders, preserve our health, and draw people to himself. We also have to keep serving. Praying and working go together. Let’s pray for God to intervene and depend on his strength as we continue to do what we can to stop this virus. He’s promised to work all things together for good for those who love him and we expect nothing less during this epidemic.

Let’s Get Ethical

Ethics may become the most important factor in how the future looks after the coronavirus. Everything from hospital exhaustion to surveillance to medical testing to the way the government and corporations work together has a moral dimension. The choices we’re making as a society are not merely pragmatic steps in a time of crisis. We are shaping the moral future that we will live in, and a future we’ll hand over to our kids.

Some examples of moral tradeoffs are more evident than others. After a viral interview with Tucker Carlson, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has been pegged - unfairly, I think - as the spokesperson for the position that older people should sacrifice themselves for the economy. He framed the dilemma this way: “Are you willing to take a chance at your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all of America loves for your children and grandchildren. And if that’s the question, then I’m all in… I want to live smart and see through this, but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”

It’s tempting to take away a false distinction from his statement, and whether or not he’s right, he broaches an issue that needs to be discussed. The question isn’t whether or not he’s prepared to die for the economy, but whether he’s willing to stomach a higher risk for the sake of preserving the economy. It certainly wasn’t a call for everyone over seventy to sacrifice themselves for the sake of adding a point to the Dow, as it’s been sold in some media outlets. The central issue is the tradeoff of risks as we’re facing an uncertain future. There are risks to our health and the ones we love, risks to our jobs, risks to our retirement accounts, risks to our national economic infrastructure, and risks to the way of life we’ve enjoyed in the U.S. The key is to understand that tradeoffs are necessary, even as the future is unknown.

Pro-Life and Pro-Future

Christians are, and should be, at the center of this debate. We have both the opportunity and the obligation to bring moral clarity to this crisis. So much of the aftermath has reduced the conversation to a zero-sum game between life and the economy. Should we value life or our economic future? Obviously, this is a false choice. These two are far more related than they are exclusive, but one of the hazards of social media-driven thinking is the lack of nuance that requires us to choose one or the other. I typically agree with Russell Moore’s analysis, but I’m afraid his latest piece wrestles an already bedridden straw man to the ground. Moore writes, “Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God,” and later, “We must also reject suggestions that it makes sense to prioritize the care of those who are young and healthy over those who are elderly or have disabilities.” These are both true statements in a vacuum, but they don’t grasp the situation. Prioritizing risk - holding our competing and correlating interests in tension - is going to be the only successful strategy.

Political leaders and healthcare professions are going to be called upon to make some very tough decisions, ones that should rely on a fundamental commitment to the dignity of human life, a commitment to a biblical worldview, and a keen grasp of the realities they’ve been presented with. This combination of factors is one reason these decisions will be so difficult. Matthew Lee Anderson’s article at Mere Orthodoxy frames the question more helpfully: “Paradoxically, a society cannot function if it puts a dollar sign on human lives: but those who lead it may sometimes be put in extraordinary situations where they might be required to do just that, or something very near it. The qualification is necessary, as the decision to preserve economic opportunities is not fundamentally about ‘dollar signs,’ but is instead about preserving the freedom of citizens to fulfill their divinely-ordained tasks to cultivate the earth and so bless the world through their labors.” The problem is, “Moore’s repudiation of any tradeoffs is too ethereal: it cannot answer the practical questions upon which our leaders will be held to account.” Careful nuance will be the wisest course in the long run even if it gets less attention in the short run.

The President answered the economy vs. human life question in his press conference Friday. When asked about whether or not he would value the economy over health, he replied, “The priority is life and safety, and then the economy.” It’s important that we maintain the ability to establish our priorities and rank them in order of importance.

Doctors, especially, are fighting to save every single life they can. However, if and when medical supplies grow scarce, they will have to make difficult decisions about who to treat and how to best use their limited resources. This kind of medical triage is not foreign to standard medical practice, but the stakes are higher in this time of crisis. Prioritizing our equipment and medical supplies to help the most people and preserve the highest number of lives is what’s going to be required of our healthcare professionals. This is not because they value the lives of some and not of others, but because they value the lives of everyone.

While most of us will not be faced with these decisions, we may be on the receiving end of doctors’ deliberations and politicians’ plans to curb the spread of the outbreak. It’s essential that we remember our most powerful recourse is prayer. Let’s not compromise our core principles. We believe in the dignity of every person. We also believe that we should make the wisest decisions we can, even when there are no good outcomes.

The Brave New World of COVID-19

There’s another dimension that has little to do with the lives of elderly citizens or prioritizing life over the economy. As is the case with so many of these debates, other issues are hiding beneath the surface. Control runs through the middle of a lot of these decisions. Who gets to decide what we do? Who makes the rules about where medical supplies go? Who makes decisions for the vulnerable groups? Patrick’s proposal represents one position very clearly: individuals. His detractors another: the government. Patrick is advocating for the ethical opposite of something like a “shelter in place” order, which falls under a more paternalistic view of the situation: people will not do what’s good for them, so the government has to step in and force them to do it. While I wouldn’t necessarily frame things the way Patrick did, I’m glad he’s making this point, and I agree with his underlying premise. If we’re going to make it through this and keep our freedoms intact, we’re going to have to trust one another.

While I don’t know if there’s a straight answer to this question of sovereignty in the case of a pandemic, this is the central question we should be asking: what role does the government play in protecting people during a crisis? What if people won’t do what they’re told? What duty do our leaders have to protect us from other people’s choices? How much skin do government employees have in the game? Hungary should serve as a warning for the world. Prime Minister Victor Orban signed legislation that suspends the power of parliament and gives him sole control over the country. While he’s promised to return power after the pandemic, this is a cautionary tale; only time will tell.

While we shouldn’t expect this scenario to play out in the U.S., we do have to think about the limits of authoritarian measures during crises. At the same time, we also expect our leaders to step up and lead in times of trouble. Sometimes the line between good leadership and authoritarianism can be difficult to find. The virus aside, the business of governing a sinful and imperfect public is a herculean - bordering Sisyphean - task.

A more subtle, and ultimately more important, issue is surveillance. Should the government be able to use your health status and location to control what you do? China has been able to curb the spread of the virus by using its advanced surveillance system. They have drones that monitor whether or not people are wearing masks. They track people’s location using their cell phones to see if they’ve been close to someone with the virus. The government has developed a healthcare software that takes data from Alibaba - a Chinese Amazon competitor - combined with their movement and their healthcare records to label them with a health status. This information is shared with the police who can scan a barcode on people’s cell phones and decide if they can use public transportation or travel at all. It may turn out that China has used these methods to curb the spread of the virus – although many believe they have been lying about their numbers. All of this may be pragmatically expedient, but is it ethical? Is it the kind of world we want to live in?

These are issues we can disagree on. In fact, it would be good for us to entertain the strongest arguments on every side of these questions in the coming weeks. There is good historical precedent for the government taking outsized control during crises – but those same events show how difficult it is for the government to relinquish power after the crisis is over. And at the same time, America was founded on the principle that individual citizens know what is best, not an overarching federal government. The relationship between governors and the federal government in the last two weeks underscores this point. The greatest danger is continuing to act without considering the underlying moral choices we’re making. It will be too late to have these conversations in two months. We need principled, ethical leadership now. That responsibility rests on our elected officials, but it starts with us. We have to own the responsibilities we have to live as informed moral citizens, the role we can play in keeping others safe, and the voice we bring to this discussion.

Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak.


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