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The coronavirus crisis is a moral test. Will we pass?

The challenges facing Americans are revealing our individual and national character.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with the Florida Department of Education have announced that all state schools will close for one additional week beyond spring break due to the coronavirus outbreak. Students began spring break this weekend and the beach was packed on Saturday, March 14, 2020, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
Alex Menendez, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The new coronavirus has exposed deficiencies in America’s health care system and emergency preparedness. But it’s also exposing something else.

Pardon, America, your character is showing.

Among the people pointing this out is New York writer Jon Katz, who has observed that the demands of social distancing are coming up against radical individualism and selfishness born of a society in which we “count our money, pay our bills, shrink into the digital world and forget how to talk to people face to face.”

“The coronavirus is a moral threat, and an ethical challenge, in that it asks each of us to be mindful of ourselves and others and to police ourselves for the good of all,” Katz recently wrote on his blog.

By some accounts, Americans may be failing that test, as individuals and as a nation. Twitter users recently were enraged when a 30-year-woman in Las Vegas wrote that she was enjoying a hamburger in a crowded Red Robin “because this is America. And I’ll do what I want” — despite health and government officials’ urgings to stay at home to help slow the spread of the virus.

Author Jon Katz at his farm in Cambridge, New York Thursday, March 19, 2020. Katz believes the government is not doing enough to help workers who have lost income from mass closures.
Author Jon Katz at his farm in Cambridge, New York, Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Photo by Maria Wulf

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted — and quickly deleted — a similar post.

The “I’ll do what I want” attitude was also evident in the throngs of college students massing on Florida beaches until the governor told them “the party’s over” and said the state would enforce guidelines prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. It has resulted in government action to try to force people to behave responsibly, such as California’s new shelter-in-place order.

While many Americans understand the need for social distancing and are willing to comply, the answer to other moral dilemmas presented by the pandemic are not so easily discerned. Take, for example, the matter of toilet paper: Does basic decency demand that we leave some for others at the store, or should the needs of our family come first?

And is it moral to order products online, causing other people to risk infection so they can deliver supplies to us at home?

The pandemic is also setting moral traps for the government, as we maneuver through a medical and economic morass that has no precedent. As Congress debates a trillion-dollar aid package that could send $1,200 to many Americans and billions to businesses, Franklin Foer, writing for The Atlantic, deemed the package a moral failure of Congress.

Among other things, he noted at the time that the Trump administration was considering helping out casino owners. “While casinos are important employers, they also preside over a gambling industry that addicts and abuses citizens — why should they get pulled from the fire while independent booksellers and local florists wither and die?” Foer wrote. On Twitter later, he likened casino payouts to theft.

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Others, however, argue that governments are morally obligated to use all available tools in a time of crisis.

If, as Katz says, the current pandemic is a moral test, are we failing as badly as some say? If so, what can we do to bring up our grade?

Parable of toilet paper

Katz, a bestselling author who lives on a farm in upstate New York with his wife, faced his own moral test recently at a grocery store, where he was heading for the last package of toilet paper at the same time as an older woman. He got to the package first and headed to the cash register triumphantly, but had an attack of conscience before checking out. He tried to find the other shopper to share it with her, but couldn’t find her. He tried to tell himself that he did the right thing thing by taking this “precious commodity” home to his wife (who, he said, did not seem pleased with his behavior).

Thinking on this later, Katz said in an interview with the Deseret News that he decided he doesn’t want to be the sort of man who races to take something before others, and it was a lesson that influenced his shopping this week. When he went to the store on Wednesday, there were three chicken breasts, but he decided to take one and leave the others. “The interesting thing about this virus is that it is asking all of us to make a lot of moral decisions,” he said.

While the surreal atmosphere in America right now has been likened to the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Katz said that 9/11 didn’t demand anything of most Americans. In contrast, the pandemic threatens to upend American life for months, if not years, some analysts say. It could require a level of personal sacrifice not seen since World War II, when Americans’ consumption of supplies such as gas, sugar, butter and milk was restricted by rationing.

And over the next few months, we will learn hard truths about the nation’s character in our response.

As Joseph Stieb wrote for the The Washington Post, “For the past three-quarters of a century, Americans have largely not been asked to sacrifice across the board for the good of the country. They’ve been told they can fulfill their responsibilities as citizens by being consumers — buying stuff to keep the economy humming was all it took to be a good American. This makes the sacrifices now being requested feel alien, causing many Americans to bristle.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk agreed that selfishness might cause some Americans to ignore the pleadings of health officials and continue to live like it’s January and not March, but he noted another possible reason for this behavior: It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that engaging in the simple pleasures of everyday life — such as going out for burgers with our family — could ultimately be lethal to someone else.

Right now, Mounk wrote, “seemingly innocuous activities are the equivalent of raising a revolver — and then pulling the trigger.”

It also bears noting that the radical changes Americans are being asked to make run counter to the nation’s prevailing ethos: the rugged individualism that is baked into our DNA, and usually celebrated.

Little moral dilemmas

In Monclova, Ohio, college professor Karen Benjamin Guzzo, 44, is trying to work from home while mothering two teens home from school, amid concern for her husband, an emergency room physician.

But Guzzo’s daily life is also now consumed with little moral dilemmas, such as one she recently posted on Twitter: Is it ethical to have food delivered to your home in the age of the coronavirus? While people responding to Guzzo’s post were uncertain, the nation at large seems to think it’s all right: Domino’s Pizza has announced it is hiring 10,000 new workers to meet demand across the country.

Guzzo also worries about the ethics of stocking up on food and other necessities, since doing so is not an option for people who were already struggling before the events of the past few weeks.

“It’s a real dilemma; if they’re telling us we need to stay home and not go out too much, then it makes sense to stock up. I can afford to buy three packages of toilet paper and lots of meat to freeze, and I have a house big enough to put it in. But for folks living paycheck to paycheck, they can’t stock up ahead of time and that stuff needs to be in the stores for them when they go back. … What this crisis is revealing is that we do not have enough of a safety net,” Guzzo said.

Katz has already debated another moral dilemma preemptively. At 72, with diabetes and heart disease, he is at risk for complications if he were to contract the virus. And he has decided that if this were to happen, and ventilators are scarce, he would rather the potentially lifesaving machine go to someone younger. He’s already spoken to his doctor, saying he’s not sure that extension of life for some of the oldest Americans is worth the economic carnage to the youngest. “I don’t know; I don’t have the answer to that, but I wish we would discuss it a little more.”

He knows people in the service industry who face economic ruin if widespread shutdowns continue and says a one-time government payment to them is the equivalent of a tip, nothing that will keep them afloat long term.

“When I talk to ordinary people around here who are losing their jobs and listen to what they’re up against — they’re suddenly without a paycheck, they have no money in the bank — I can’t imagine what’s going to happen to them, and I don’t see anybody really helping them.”

‘Epidemic of kindness’

Ruth Faden, a bioethicist and founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, lives part of the year in Washington, D.C., and the rest in Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts. She said she has friends and family encouraging her to go to Massachusetts but has decided to stay in Washington because she believes everyone should stay where they are at this point. “The less movement, the better,” she told Brian Dowd of the MV Times.

While Katz and others question whether state and local governments are doing more harm than good by increasing restrictions designed to enforce social distancing, Faden believes that the government’s most important and ethical task is to “flatten the curve,” slowing the rate of infection.

In an interview with the Deseret News, she said it’s difficult to assess how the nation is meeting the moral and ethical test as a whole, given that there are many examples of both admirable and reprehensible behavior.

For individuals, she said, our task is not just preventing the spread of COVID-19, but also to spread “an epidemic of kindness.”

Almost everyone we know is suffering in some way right now. New York pastor Susan Sparks recently wrote that she was in a grocery store recently and noticed people being rude to the man running the meat counter because it was so poorly stocked. “When I finally got to the front of the line at the meat counter and saw his face, I just involuntarily blurted out, ‘Are you OK?’ and tears began to stream down his face,” Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, wrote on her blog.

Brian Dowd, the Martha’s Vineyard reporter, observed a similarly stressed cashier and said someone in line offered to buy her a soda. Faden said a restaurant near her is offering to deliver free meals to everyone 70 or older. Such small acts of kindness, multiplied by 327 million, 7 days a week, may be what Americans remember after the pandemic has passed.

Our first order of ethical behavior right now social distancing, Faden said. Second is taking care of others, particularly those most at risk and those who live alone. Third, she said, is giving blood, if we are able. And fourth is being solicitous and appreciative of everyone we encounter, from health care workers to cashiers to people coming to collect our trash.

“Be especially appreciative, demonstrably so, to anyone in your life you encounter who is taking on risks to protect you,” she said.

In New York, Katz said that moral leadership needs to come from the top of government, but that doesn’t absolve individuals of their responsibility.

“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “Every day, we’re being asked to be moral. Those of us who get that message have a chance to do that. Which is good.”