Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Solidarity Means Social Distancing
distributed 3/13/20 - ©2020

A headline on The Guardian's website this morning put it well: "Unprepared America wakes up to coronavirus, gradually then all at once."

A week ago, the US was starting to take seriously the fact that Covid-19 really was spreading across the country. Today, President Trump is expected to declare a national emergency.

A week ago, I passed along the most basic advice for personal actions. (Wash your hands well and often. Cover coughs and sneezes.) Today, I need to highlight a primary theme of social ethics as we -- belatedly -- come to grips with a major public health crisis.

The ethical word for today is "solidarity." The primary behavior emerging from that ethical perspective is "social distancing." Beyond that, there is a need for attention for the most vulnerable of several types.

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An email came to me this morning from the global activist group, Avaaz. Their message was blunt.

Something big is about to happen to humanity, much more than just a flu.

The WHO just declared coronavirus a pandemic, which means many of us could get it -- and although most will be fine, for the more vulnerable it could mean the difference between life and death. We all have someone we love who could be facing this.

Our mission now is to mobilise to SLOW it down, because the slower it moves, the more our hospitals can cope, and the more lives will be saved.

This isn't about how to keep from getting sick. There's a good chance that you will, eventually. This is about how to keep our health care system from being overwhelmed. We need to act together for the sake of the public good, more than for our individual benefit.

The wise scholars who have shaped eco-justice ethics have defined four ethical norms that are central to this movement. As in the classic article by Dieter Hessel, those norms are almost always presented in a certain order: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation. An ethic of earth justice begins with the recognition that we're all in this together. Hessel writes of "solidarity with other people and creatures -- companions, victims, and allies -- in earth community."

Especially in times of crisis -- and this pandemic is a crisis -- solidarity shifts us from a focus on what's best for me and my immediate community, and turns us toward a focus on what's best for the larger community. Because we are all part of that larger community, too, solidarity is a form of enlightened self-interest. In a pandemic, lowering the demands on the health care system means that there is a better chance of necessary care for those who need it, including you.

This morning, the Denver Post printed an analysis from the New York Times. (Sorry, I don't have a link.) The doctor who wrote it said, "A crucial thing to understand about the threat ... is the difference between the number of people who might get sick and the number who might get sick at the same time." Flattening the peak of infections makes an enormous difference. "It's estimated that we have 45,000 intensive care unit beds in the United States. In a moderate outbreak, about 200,000 Americans would need one."

A report in The Atlantic says that "so far only one measure has been effective against the coronavirus: extreme social distancing." That means asking people "to stay away from public places, cancel big gatherings, and restrict most forms of nonessential travel." (If you want to dig into the technical mathematics of how social distancing works, take a look at an article from Toward Data Science.)

Within the last couple of days, we've seen social distancing institutionalized as school systems announce "an extended spring break," and as universities either shift to on-line classes or close down completely. Professional sports are cancelling seasons, and school sports are playing in empty auditoriums. Businesses are asking those who can to work from home. I'm seeing quite a few reports of churches that are cancelling Sunday worship services, classes and meetings, at least for the next couple of weeks.

Social distancing is an inconvenience for many of us. It has far more substantial impacts for others. When school is cancelled, low-income kids miss out on healthy meals, and parents have to find child care. When conventions are cancelled, caterers and cleaning staff don't work. Employees of airlines and restaurants have hours cut.

The most vulnerable may not have options for social distancing. People who live on the street don't even have a place to do careful hand washing, and if libraries and shelters close, there's no safe place to go. I've heard of organizations which usually provide hot meals for those experiencing homelessness who will now offer "grab and go" lunches.

The urgent actions being taken for containment, quarantines and social distancing can build on and heighten existing inequalities. A report from Seattle published in High Country News spells out how "the coronavirus outbreak has shown the region's leadership to be equal-opportunity dispensers of racial insensitivity."

There are pastoral and psychological costs to social distancing. Nursing homes are restricting visitors, so those who already feel isolated will have even less human contact. (I know of one church that is urging members to send cards and notes to those who are homebound or in care facilities.)

The advocacy arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a very good resource that expands awareness of who may face difficult impacts because of the pandemic, and points toward a variety of policy points which need urgent activism. The resource ends with an appropriate "prayer for caregivers and others who support the sick." They are the ones who are doing the most essential work of protecting the common good through this pandemic. We must give thanks and care for those who place themselves at risk of infection, and who work in high-stress settings of emergency medical care.

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Solidarity calls us to act for the best interests of the entire community. With the rapid spread of the coronavirus, solidarity demands that we practice strict social distancing, personally and institutionally. Slowing the spread of the disease, and flattening the peaks of infection, are essential steps for public health.

Solidarity also demands that we be attentive to the most vulnerable in our communities. The poor and at-risk will suffer even more than usual with a crashing economy and with social restrictions. Active outreach and advocacy are essential.

This is not a time for panic, but neither is it a time for complacency and business as usual. Personally, in our churches, and politically may we keep a clear focus on the common good, with special care for the most vulnerable.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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