Few imagined that the most well-known principle of Catholic social thought would require human beings to stay apart. But as Gerald Beyer explains, Covid-19 social distancing measures not only demonstrate that solidarity is essential for our survival. They also expose the consequences of the neglect of solidarity in cultures dominated by excessive individualism, not least in the United States.
In a pandemic solidarity requires being apart.
I have spent much of my career thinking and writing about solidarity. Generally, we think of solidarity uniting us, bringing us together in a common cause. Never did I imagine that I would write that solidarity requires being apart. But with rapidly rising Coronavirus infection and death rates across the globe, the time has come.
According to Catholic social teaching, solidarity requires physically being with the marginalised and oppressed, in order to learn from them and understand their painful and unjust situations, and to work side-by-side with them in order to overcome their problems. As St. John Paul II put it, solidarity is learned through “contact” not “concepts.” However, in order to confront the Coronavirus, which could possibly cause more than 2 million deaths in the United States alone without swift and determined action, according to Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, solidarity demands of most of us that we stay physically apart from most people for an extended period of time.
Meanwhile, even in the middle of March, beaches in Florida were still packed with sun worshipers. Some pubs reportedly remained open in Boston to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Only after the Governor of Virginia banned gatherings of 100 people did Liberty University move to online classes only (even though multitudes of universities had already done so the previous week). Even some prominent politicians were opining that we should go out to “local restaurants” and “pubs” as long as we are “healthy.” According to a mid-March poll, most Americans had not altered their lifestyle in the face of the Coronavirus, and a rising proportion (44%) did not see it as a “real threat”.
Solidarity holds that each person is “really responsible for all,” as St. John Paul II stated in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Christianity maintains this is the case because Jesus Christ is truly present in every one of our brothers and sisters. We should therefore be concerned about everyone’s health and wellbeing, not just our own and our immediate family’s. As St. Paul reminds us, if one member of the body suffers, “all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
In a society like the United States, where excessive individualism has overtaken American social consciousness for decades, as political scientists such as E.J. Dionne explained in his book Our Divided Political Heart, this understanding of solidarity has been largely rejected. The fact that many people are willing to prioritise their own “freedom” to enjoy pleasures right now over the lives of the most vulnerable to Coronavirus makes this clear. In a situation like the present, solidarity with the vulnerable should be freely chosen. It should not take mandates from elected officials to stop the risky socialising that some people are still engaging in.
Why Social Distancing and What is It?
Social distancing entails creating as much physical space between oneself and other people to the greatest degree feasible. Experts say it requires maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between oneself and another person. During a pandemic like the Coronavirus, it is extremely important that all people try to undertake this measure, not just those who are experiencing symptoms. This is because people can already carry the virus while being asymptomatic, and potentially transmit it to another person. Even though the carrier may never experience any or severe symptoms (such as acute respiratory distress syndrome or death), they might give the virus to a person who is more vulnerable to such dire consequences.
Social distancing can and should be achieved through various means, such as working from home, moving from the traditional classroom to online learning, visiting with loved ones either by videoconferencing or by telephone, curtailing children’s sleepovers and playdates, cancelling sporting and extracurricular events and practices, social and religious gatherings, professional conferences, etc. Avoiding gatherings that bring people together across households, rescheduling non-emergent doctors’ appointments, avoiding public transportation, and shopping for essential groceries and medications during off-peak times should be accepted as well. If people must go out in public to buy essential goods, they ought to wear face masks. Although leaving scarce N95 and surgical masks for health professionals on the front lines is an urgent act of solidarity, wearing even homemade masks when one must leave home can also be an expression of solidarity towards others. While some Asian societies have practised this for years, we now also see that the Czech Republic’s significant slowing of the coronavirus spread may be attributable to requiring everyone to don a mask in public.
As we have seen in the United States, the President slowly ratcheted down the number of recommended people that can meet outside of the home, first recommending avoiding gatherings of more than 1,000 people, then down to just ten people. Some cities, counties, and states went beyond the President’s initial guidelines. For example, Santa Clara County, which encompasses like cities like San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland, ordered “all individuals living in the county to shelter at their place of residence” except when engaging in certain “essential services” or “activities.”
A number of experts in the United States and people in Italy have been calling upon Americans to enact such social distancing measures before the spread of the virus spirals out of control. Some scientists maintained that proactive school closings could be “one of the most powerful non-pharmaceutical interventions” available. These experts had been urging social distancing because of the fear that the US healthcare system might be overwhelmed by the number of infections and hospitalisations required by serious symptoms, as is explained in detail by this physicians’ group. The US simply does not have enough hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators, and the technicians required to operate them to handle the likely surge in life-threatening infection cases. As UCSD Professor of Medicine Robert Signer explains, our upward trajectory of infections resembles Italy, where one in 14 of those infected has died. Conversely, less than one out of 100 has died in South Korea, where social distancing and other measures were quickly and aggressively implemented. Dr. Signer and graphic designer Gary Warshaw have helpfully depicted how social distancing can slow the spread of the virus and save lives in the now well-known graphic, here.
Signer and others contend that as many as half of all Americans could ultimately contract the virus. While the vast majority of them will not require hospitalisation, as many as 15% likely will. Thus, in addition to testing, identifying and isolating people with the virus (many more than currently reported), it is absolutely necessary to “flatten the curve” (slow the spread of the virus) by undertaking social distancing. Social distancing, though not a panacea, works to help contain the virus and decrease the mortality rate. For example, during the 1918 flu pandemic cities like St. Louis swiftly enacted social distancing, whereas Philadelphia did not – resulting in a much higher death rate in Philadelphia. Social distancing also saved thousands of lives during the 2009 Mexican flu, and “reduced disease transmission by more than a third.” In short, we need to stay apart as much as possible – now and until further notice – but not forever. Acting sooner rather than later will ultimately shorten our time apart.
The neglect of solidarity will affect us all
For some workers, it is much easier to practice social distancing than most (I am one of those lucky ones as a university professor). Some types of businesses and industries more easily lend themselves to working from home. Obviously, doctors, nurses, first responders, pharmacy and grocery store workers and others on the frontlines in the battle against the Coronavirus cannot. In addition, the employers of tens of millions of workers in the service sector, for example, may or may not decide to close and may not offer paid sick leave to those who have or suspect they have contracted Coronavirus. Until governors ordered nonessential businesses such as casinos and bars to be closed, this was true.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world to have no paid sick leave protected by its federal labour laws, although a few states mandate it. The US Labour Department reports that only 29% of workers can work from home while one third of all workers do not have paid sick leave days (two thirds of low-wage earners). Low-wage workers especially cannot afford to forsake pay, which puts themselves, their families and the broader community at risk during this pandemic. At the time of writing, the US Congress was trying to push forward a relief bill that would include two weeks paid sick leave, but Republicans and Democrats were arguing about who should foot the bill – employers or the government.
Other nations such as Denmark have already demonstrated since the outbreak what compromise looks like when government, employers and workers are willing to collaborate for the sake of the common good. Of course, Denmark, Germany and other countries have a long history of tripartite labour negotiations that brings all of these groups the table. But with its comparatively weak labour laws, the US leaves workers at the mercy of their employers – as Cornell labour expert James Gross shows in A Shameful Business: The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace.
Solidarity requires sacrifice for the common good, and for the needs of the most vulnerable. Social distancing does require staying at home as much as possible to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, it but does not demand complete social isolation nor does it preclude going outdoors. The clear and detailed Santa Clara County directive explicitly permits people to “engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements,” as the document defines them. “Walking, hiking, or running” and walking the dog are allowed, for example, as long as individuals “maintain at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitiser, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands), regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands.” People can connect electronically, and are encouraged to do so by psychologists if they have the technological capability. Those who are technologically savvy can help their elderly relatives learn how to use FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and other similar platforms. It would be helpful if more companies and local municipalities would step forward, like Spectrum, and provide broadband access to those who cannot afford it.
Social distancing alone will not defeat Coronavirus. Widespread, accurate and accessible testing is an absolute necessity, according to the World Health Organisation. We must continue to urge our leaders to make testing available (as at the time of writing they have failed to do) as there is a long way to go before scientists develop a vaccine. As this crisis exposes, solidarity also requires that we create a healthcare system that provides necessary care to all – including any future Coronavirus vaccine.
In the meantime, we can all do our part by staying apart, in solidarity, for now. We should also be in solidarity with others by not dangerously hoarding more than our families truly need to be prepared.
While there is debate about how long this trial will last, it will be a relatively short span of most lifetimes and will prevent the premature cessation of many. Educational, religious and civic leaders and others should especially ask young people to practice social distancing, as they may not be fully cognisant of its necessity and benefit. Caregivers should also try, as hard as it may be, to explain social distancing to their elderly loved ones. Social distancing undoubtedly involves sacrifice, but our solidarity will save lives.
© Gerald J. Beyer
Gerald J. Beyer is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University. His publications include Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2010), Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education (Fordham Univ. Press, forthcoming in 2020) and journal articles on solidarity, worker justice, and Catholic social thought. He co-edited and contributed an essay to the critical edition of Karol Wojtyła, Katolicka etyka społeczna (Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL, 2018). He is associate editor of Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society and Executive Committee Member of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. Beyer teaches undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students at Villanova.
Image courtesy of: Robert A.J. Signer Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego and Gary Warshaw, Art Director
With thanks to Catholic Moral Theology where this article was first published
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