Mother Teresa taught me over the course of the 12 years I knew her that the divine imprint in each of us, unites all of us. She devoted her life to the truth that all are created equal and endowed by God with singular, unalienable beauty and worth, including those of little account.
How might she react to the coronavirus pandemic? She likely would remind us that we need each other and should not fear each other, and that preferential attention should be placed on the elderly, disabled, and poor. Unfortunately, COVID is spreading division and fraying the connective tissue that binds society together, including its so-called lowliest members. On the streets, in the stores, even in outdoor spaces, there is now an uneasiness in encountering others which did not exist four months ago. The familiar face passing us on the sidewalk of our own neighborhood is now considered a threat to us, as a possible carrier of a life-ending illness. Under such circumstances, a homeless beggar doesn’t stand a chance.
Social distancing mandates were adopted nationwide when America faced the forecast of 2 million deaths and a medical care system in ruins. Even though this awful scenario never remotely materialized, the wave of public health precautions they triggered proceeded unchallenged, as did the generalized fear of others they engendered. As a result, the coronavirus has become more than an attack on the immune system of individuals. It now challenges what makes us truly human as members of one body.
Each day the divisions in America seem to multiply under the magnifying glass that the pandemic has become. Mask-wearers now are pitted against those who choose not to wear a mask, with each camp claiming intellectual and moral superiority. Even when so-called “experts” disagree on the probability of a COVID transmission under a particular set of circumstances, the mere claim that a “safety” measure might possibly help prevent a single transmission is enough to justify the mandate. This can lead to odd outcomes. I discovered this recently when I played golf and was told that the rakes in the sand traps on the course had been removed to limit the spread of the virus. Such silliness feeds a growing distrust, if not a backlash, among a self-governed people who cherish personal freedom and are capable of acting reasonably and responsibly, and can intelligibly assume the risks that come with daily life.
But what are those risks? Instead of helping inform and reporting facts fairly, many media outlets and internet giants chose to frighten the public and harden divisions. Death-by-death coverage of the pandemic and aggregating data (for example, by reporting “spikes” in new cases without reporting the actual number seriously ill or hospitalized), perpetuated a misleading narrative that all were equally in danger of death or the ICU. The fact that Tom Hanks got the coronavirus made headlines. The fact that he had nearly no symptoms and was barely even sick, did not.
Such misleading coverage prevented an honest examination of how to optimally balance the myriad of health, economic, financial, and social interests at play, while still preserving life and protecting the poor and dependent. Fortunately, there is much common ground upon which consensus can now emerge. The fatality rates and data on co-morbidity show us which groups have the highest probability of dying if infected, and thus merit strict precautions.
But as we look for sensible approaches going forward, our country can ill-afford to ignore the tradeoff between sweeping public health mandates and the social isolation they foster.
During her lifetime Mother Teresa was asked what the worst disease was that she had seen. She did not say it was leprosy or AIDS. She said it was loneliness – the feeling of being unloved, unwanted, and unwelcome. This disease is spreading unabated today. Well-intended measures to delay death for the elderly and vulnerable are no substitute for real, human engagement with them. A society where nearly all smiles are masked, and grandparents can’t hug grandchildren, and even our friends are methodically kept at a distance, provides a fertile environment for the transmission of this awful illness.
During these summer months when coronavirus fatalities are low and concerns about the next season of influenza run high, we would do well to heed Mother Teresa’s warning about the danger of loneliness, and our need for one another. If she could manage the risks of washing the sores of lepers, we can find ways to treat COVID patients while compassionately embracing the legions of the lonely who cry out for company and connection.