Accountability in the Midst of COVID-19

~Rev. Dr. Sharon Wilson

Photo by Lorraine Hladik

A few nights ago I was walking my dog in the neighbourhood. We came upon a vehicle parked on the street. The licence plate looked different so I paid special attention as we passed the back bumper. “MONTANA!!!!!!!!” I shouted in my head. Suddenly I was filled with a mixture of rage and indignation. How dare someone wantonly defy border restrictions and put all of us good, law-abiding, Bonnie Henry-loving citizens at risk????? The truck disappeared then following afternoon, but I have been wrestling with my reaction to this episode ever since.

As we enter Phase 3 of the pandemic response we are enjoying more freedom with the consequent increased vulnerability. I confess that last week I experienced the euphoria of my first haircut since early February. Freedom fills us with energy and hope. It promises a return to face-to-face encounters and, in time, the hugs we have been hungering to give and receive for so many months. Yet, all of us have seen the video clips of family gatherings and public parks brimming with people close together and often without masks. Infection rates in the United States are increasing at alarming levels even as states continue to announce the return to business as normal.

The pandemic poses a host of critical ethical issues: what are my rights?, to whom am I accountable?, who controls my life? A good place to start exploring these questions is the website of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. David E. DeCosse offers “Five Ethical Basics in the face of the Coronavirus Pandemic”:

  • It’s not only about you.
  • In a pandemic, ethics takes a long view
  • Don’t fear everything but fear the right things
  • In a pandemic, ethics stays the same—and ethics also changes
  • Beware the bias in blaming

This short article does an excellent job setting out the landscape that we now occupy. We are living on the cusp of disaster and that has made us more fearful, insular and reactive. This is the natural response to threat but that does not mean that those gut reactions should have free-range in our lives.

I want to focus on the notion of the common good. We are not islands. We exist in this world in relationships of family, friendship, work, community and so many more. Our interdependence has revealed itself clearly for those of us who had to self-isolate and depended on others to pick up and deliver our groceries, mail, and prescriptions. We can now chuckle about the shortages of toilet paper that had us yearning for the good old days when at least you had an Eaton’s catalogue for emergencies!

The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the ethicist John Rawls defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”.

The enemy of the common good is individualism. This is fueled by the notion of ‘me first’. We have seen both the common good and individualism on display throughout this pandemic. They seem to be constantly in tension with one another and we are all being drawn into the conflict.

Deeply rooted in our faith is the notion of the ‘neighbour’. In the Hebrew it is rea and in Greek it is plesion. The neighbour is one who is near or sometimes defined as a friend. However, the meaning of neighbour was expanded and deepened in Leviticus 19:18 which set out how the Israelites were to treat each other and the stranger. The ‘Golden Rule’ made clear in the ministry of Jesus further points us to an ethic of the common good.

So consider what you are saying and doing that promotes the common good. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Keep social distance. Avoid crowds. Don’t travel unnecessarily. Be mindful of your neighbours. Keep in touch by phone, text or email. Support the charities that are working harder than ever in this trying time. Don’t point fingers.

We are being called to consider and embody ethical living in this unprecedented time. Let us embrace the challenge to uphold the common good. Let us be good neighbours. The only person whose behaviour we can control is our own.