The extraordinary shutdown, if continued, will have harmful consequences that go far beyond the economy. A short period of decisive action to buy time to prepare may be prudent. But ongoing measures of mass mobilization are likely to do severe damage to our society.
The Wall Street Journal editorial “Rethinking the Coronavirus Shutdown” warns of the economic consequences of a prolonged lockdown. We could be heading toward a drastic decline in GDP. This will dislocate the lives of tens of millions and exact human costs, not just economic ones. Already, federal officials are gearing up to spend one trillion dollars. Central banks have committed nearly two trillion dollars to stabilize markets. These extraordinary measures indicate how perilous the situation has become.
As Warren Buffet says, when the tide goes out, you discover who has been swimming naked. He meant to capture an economic truth. When credit tightens in a down market, the indebted and improvident are exposed. But the quip holds true more broadly. The shutdown puts stress on our economic system, to be sure, but it can damage our political and social systems as well. In the end, the latter are more important.
Earlier in the week I wrote about Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church. Cancelling services and closing churches underlines the irrelevance of institutional Christianity in our technocratic age. We are bombarded by the gospel of perpetual youth won through diet and exercise (supplemented by the ersatz immortality of social media fame). If churches are darkened in the face of sickness and death, only TV talking heads, media pundits, and public health officials will speak to our anxieties and fears. This reinforces the secular proposition: Life in this world is the only thing that matters.
The docility of religious leaders to the cessation of public worship is stunning. It suggests that they more than half believe that secular proposition.
Other institutions are at risk. State-encouraged “self-isolation” and restrictions on public gatherings have paused institutional life. There are no Boy Scout meetings, no Little League practices, no Rotary Club or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most book clubs are suspending their evening discussions, even though these small gatherings are permitted. Closed restaurants dissolve informal coffee klatches. Some institutions, organizations, and fellowships will rebound when the draconian limits on social life are lifted. But some will not. And the longer those limits last, the more will wither and fade away.
Earlier generations understood that institutions anchor our lives. That’s why German children went to school throughout World War II, even when their cities were being reduced to rubble. That’s why Boy Scouts conducted activities during the Spanish flu pandemic and churches were open. We’ve lost this wisdom. In this time of crisis, when our need for these anchors is all the greater, our leaders have deliberately atomized millions of people.
Society is a living organism, not a machine that can be stopped and started at our convenience. A person who is hospitalized and must lie in bed loses function rapidly, which is why nurses push patients to get up and walk as soon as possible after sicknesses and operations. The same holds true for societies. If the shutdown continues for too long, we will lose social function.
Undoubtedly “shelter in place” will slow the spread of disease, but at what cost to the body politic? Beware public health officials who advise burning the village in order to get rid of the pestilence.
And beware those who pronounce that we should save lives “at any cost.” That’s a dangerous falsehood, one that leads to barbarism and slavery. There are many things more important than physical survival—love, honor, beauty, and faith. Anyone who believes that our earthly existence is worth preserving “at any cost” will accept slavery. As St. Paul teaches, he is already a slave, spiritually speaking.
The defining moments of the coming weeks and months will not be those of sickness and death, as much as those sad realities will anguish us. Modern history shows that epidemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters can take life, often on a vast scale (tens of millions died from the Spanish flu in 1918-19). Yet society goes on pretty much as before.
I worry that this will not be the case in 2020. Imbued with the illusion that, if we but muster our collective will, we can master nature and tame death—an illusion Pope Francis warned against in Laudato Si’—we risk going mad. We are being seduced into adopting methods of “total war” to fight COVID-19. I fear that, if we continue down this path, our wartime mentality of mass mobilization will have untold consequences, many that we will deeply regret. Wars, not epidemics, turn the wheel of history.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.