Of Solidarity and Global Health Security

By: Drew Christiansen

April 14, 2020

Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social Welfare

For the pessimists among us, the coronavirus pandemic has confirmed fears that nationalism, even repressive nationalism, is the wave of the future. The anxieties precipitated by the rise of illiberal states and nationalist politicians have been exacerbated by the need for united and decisive action in face of a modern plague and the necessary preventive measure of social isolation.

On the international level, that prescription for limiting the contagion meant canceling flights; refusing safe harbor to cruise ships; and closing borders to migrants, refugees, and ordinary travelers. Nation by nation, the walls went up, and states skirmished over protective equipment and the control of potential medications.

Already Hungary’s illiberal president Viktor Orban has employed the emergency to take quasi-dictatorial authority and rule by decree. In Israel, rather than give special responsibility to the Health Ministry, the Knesset or parliament gave special authority to the police and security forces. With the pandemic of indefinite duration and gross economic contraction expected for years, commentators speculate on whether democratic institutions will long endure. 

By contrast, the Catholic Church, even with the Vatican shut down and Easter liturgies canceled, continues to make the case for solidarity. The Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican think tank, published a paper titled “Pandemic and Universal Brotherhood” on March 30, 2020. One wishes the title were more inclusive, say, “The Pandemic and the One Human Family,” but it is a reminder that just as borders are no defense against viruses, so also people across the globe are bound to one another. 

The United States is dependent on China for ventilators and on Mexico for agricultural workers. Canada relies on the United States for protective masks, and New York must appeal to other states for volunteer medical personnel in its extreme health emergency. As I write, Italy has appealed foreign medical personnel to volunteer to assist and relieve its sorely pressed medical professionals. One trembles to consider the potential need for international assistance when COVID-19 hits India full force. Across national borders, networks of scientists have been collaborating to find a vaccine to prevent the virus spreading in the future and to develop medications to relieve and cure it. Interdependence is a reality, and in times like these, interdependence must give rise to solidarity. Let us pray that what Albert Camus wrote in the The Plague will prove true today: “What is true of all evils is true of [the pandemic] it helps men rise above themselves.”

Human solidarity has been a constant theme of Catholic social teaching. Fifty-five years ago, the Second Vatican Council reminded us that the human vocation is a communitarian one [1]. The council itself saw the growth of interdependence decades before social science and the media popularized the idea; and it understood the Church as an agent of “socialization” and a sacrament of unity for the human family [2]. 

A generation later, the late Pope John Paul II proposed that the facts of interdependence should give rise to an ethic of solidarity; and in his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, he applied it to the ecological crisis [3]. Subsequently, Pope Francis has made it a major theme of his own teaching, especially in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si (On Care of Our Common Home).

Even outside hospitals, our locked-down lives are sustained by continuous webs of solidarity. From postal and package delivery people to agricultural workers, from grocers to sanitation workers, from pharmacists to EMTs, we are dependent on others to make it possible for us to lockdown in isolation. Many of them are underpaid and unprotected by health insurance and unemployment benefits. A sizeable number are undocumented workers despised by the Trump administration and hunted down with families divided and children put in detention. It remains to be seen whether the coronavirus crisis will divide us still further, as Bret Staples argues, or bring us together, as his fellow columnist Roger Cohen contends

For lack of an identifiable school of public philosophy, Catholic social teaching has emerged as a de facto public philosophy for moderate and progressive American thinkers to articulate our mutual belonging and the terrain of a common life in which we care for one another. Last week alone, March 29 to April 4, I counted five op-eds in national outlets that appealed to the common good, the cardinal principle of Catholic social teaching. In an op-ed titled “We’re Seeing the World with Plague Eyes Now,” columnist David Brooks noted that “the absence of social connection is making everyone ardent for it.” He went on to describe “social solidarity [as] an active commitment to the common good—the kind of thing needed in times like now.”

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, in the political realm solidarity takes the form of “political charity” establishing and forming institutions to care for humanity, protecting it against vulnerabilities, healing its infirmities, and promoting the flourishing of all. “To take a stand for the common good,” Benedict wrote, “is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or city” [4]. The pandemic presents us with the challenge of re-building our institutions with a view to the common good, beginning with institutions addressing global health.

It is obvious that the health sector is the place the world needs to begin its social reconstruction. 

Under the current director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has played a key role in alerting the world to the COVID-19 threat, including declaring it a pandemic on March 11. Former World Bank official Augusto Lopez-Claros, the author of a forthcoming study of global governance, writes, “there is growing evidence that with a pathogen like the coronavirus, the distinction between the 'national' and the 'global' interest is largely artificial, if not actually self-defeating.” He adds, “The international sharing of health data, the mobilization of medical resources, the formulation of more coordinated preparations and responses make eminent sense in the case of a virus which makes absolutely no distinctions . . . when it comes to its victims.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the exercise of solidarity for the sake of the universal common good requires that states, civil society, and the public commit themselves to strengthening WHO to equip it to address future contagions promptly and with adequate resources. The first need is for an increase in funding. The organization is chronically underfunded. Its present budget, about $480 million, is no more than the cost of a few well-equipped fighter jets. Now that it is clear that health is a question of global security, the time has come to fund WHO as the weapon of collective defense that it is.

Funding is needed for three tasks: emergency response, health sector development in low- and middle-income countries, and stockpiling of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. Experience with viral contagions like Ebola and Zika in recent decades has shown that rapid and concerted efforts can prevent the spread of virulent diseases. WHO has to build on those experiences to establish a standing capacity to respond in emergencies before they become epidemic.

Secondly, poor countries lack the basic infrastructure of healthcare. During the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa, one U.S. physician responsible for overseas medical assistance and later responsible for the highly successful President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program quipped that in Africa, a hospital bed counts as a healthcare improvement. Improving general healthcare in the Global South must be a global security priority.

Lastly, the pandemic has illustrated the deficits in medical equipment and medication created by the “as-needed” medical market. The need for prudent stockpiling resources, beginning with personal protective equipment like gowns, masks, and gloves, and extending to respirators and ventilators is evident. Likewise, protocols for exchange of equipment and personnel in times of crisis have become requirements for future health security.

1. See Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Henceforth GS]), nos. 23–32, esp. nos. 24–25, 30, and 32.
2. GS, no. 24–25.
3. John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socalis (On Social Concern), esp. no. 26, 38–40; and XXIII World Day of Peace Message, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation,” no. 10.
4. Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate (Love in Truth), no. 7.

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