On the left and right, politicians have used military language to describe the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are reasonable comparisons between wars and pandemics: thousands upon thousands can die; individuals demonstrate bravery; society mobilizes to achieve a common goal. Evoking military language can also show appreciation for those who serve and honor those who died. Yet the analogy has limits. As Debra Erickson highlights in these pages, comparing a pandemic to war creates several ethical problems. She explains, “If made into a moral argument, however, the analogy can be confusing, almost laughably misleading… or even dangerously misused.”
Because the war analogy breaks down and causes ethical quandaries, comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to natural disasters like hurricanes makes more sense. From the very beginning, the pandemic reminded me of hurricanes (such as the sheltering and stockpiling), though other disasters like wildfires and earthquakes may also be helpful analogies.[i] The comparison isn’t exact, partially because the pandemic is global and lasts months, not days. But it can help us understand our predicament and make problems seem less unprecedented. The observations below illustrate some similarities, followed by how the war analogy can lead to a dangerous conclusion that the natural disaster comparison avoids.
Both hurricanes and pandemics produce uncertainty. Though weather forecasts can reasonably predict where a hurricane may go, when it might make landfall, and how strong the eye will be, a slight shift can have dramatic consequences. For instance, Hurricane Katrina did not directly strike where my family lives, yet if it landed a little further east, the storm would have flattened their community. In the case of Hurricane Camille, the 1969 storm devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast with an eyewall so strong it destroyed all wind measuring instruments, while causing little damage in nearby New Orleans after turning.
This uncertainty means communities in the projected path must respect the storm and take risks seriously. People in lucky areas a storm misses may in hindsight think their leaders’ calls for sheltering or evacuation were pointless, but such calls are usually prudent and responsible. Not issuing them could even be reckless and irresponsible.
Similarly, communities face even more uncertainty during a pandemic, and leaders must wisely make quick decisions with limited information. Will the disease spread easily outside? How might it spread inside a restaurant, supermarket, stadium, or bus? What medicines and treatments work? Where is the disease? Are antibody tests worthwhile? Who is asymptomatic?[ii] As society understands COVID-19 better, authorities can improve their response.
Natural disasters inevitably harm the economy, though the government can help. First, many businesses in a hurricane’s path must board-up, causing a short-term drop in revenue. If the storm then damages homes, bridges, railway tracks, powerlines, offshore drilling rigs, etc.—the community may require years to recover. Construction usually increases to repair the damage, boosting total GDP, but the disruption elsewhere can still be painful. Therefore, the federal government can offer economic disaster relief to lessen the blow.
As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, health disasters also cause economic damage, especially when widespread testing is unavailable and people cannot know how safe going out is.[iii] Government shelter-in-place orders forced businesses to close temporarily, and numerous individuals voluntarily chose to shelter before government orders began. Keeping the economy more open may not have saved the US economy from recession. Sweden with its soft lockdown faces its worst recession since World War II. South Korea with its targeted approach and widespread testing may have a better economic recovery but still endures hardship.
As states lift shelter-in-place orders or move into “Phase One” or “Phase Two,” some activity has resumed, but long-term damage looms. OpenTable finds that reservations across America are down between 73 and 84 percent year-over-year from June 1 to 7.[iv] Steve Hafner, OpenTable’s CEO, warned a quarter of restaurants may never reopen. A survey said three-quarters of Americans plan to avoid dining out or eat at home more after reopenings. Meanwhile, AMC Theatres doubts it can survive, even with reopenings, because many older customers may not return due to the health risk. In the coming months, America will have a better grasp of the economic damage.
With COVID-19, it appears a Hurricane Katrina-scale event struck the entire country economically. In response, the government respond justly to help the suffering, and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is one reasonable measure. But the US still struggles to help the impoverished. Similar to PPP but different, “shared-work programs” (based on Germany’s Kurzarbeit) would have been more ideal and could have led to lower unemployment and the resulting despair. For now, America faces a long and possibly difficult recovery, even as some of the millions who lost their jobs return to work.
Saving Lives vs. Saving Jobs
When lockdowns began, Americans debated whether the economic harm outweighed saving lives. Some Christians suggested we should spend whatever necessary to save a life, and others argued the choice is not so simple.
This debate is not new, and societies have for centuries specified how much a life (or a limb) is worth in monetary terms. In the 1980s, the US said a life was worth what an average person earned in a lifetime, or $300,000. A commission led by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush found this number morally unacceptable because someone’s paycheck doesn’t determine his or her worth. So a new formula established a life was worth $3 million in 1982, or $10 million in 2020 (the government later tried to say older individuals were worth less but faced protests). This figure then helps decide questions like whether backup cameras in cars are worth the cost.
Forecasts showed the COVID-19 pandemic could have killed around one to over two million Americans without lockdowns and social distancing. Considering the lower number, measures to stop the pandemic would then be worth enduring $10 trillion of damage, or half of annual US GDP.[v] Of course, Americans may not value life that much in a pivotal moment. They may accept spending slightly more on a car to save lives, but not losing their job. But this arithmetic was part of the moral and economic calculation for shelter-in-place orders.
Much hinges on whether people trust the pandemic forecasts, which involve a range of uncertain possibilities based on assumptions and inputs that epidemiologists tweak in order to avoid worst-case scenarios. If someone rejects that a million or more Americans could have died, this entire conversation changes—conversation may not even be possible since both sides start from such radically different understandings. From my perspective, COVID-19 has killed more than 113,000 Americans, though the real number is possibly higher. So if the government never issued shelter-in-place orders and people did not voluntarily practice social distancing, more than a million deaths seems probable.
Similarly, governments must calculate whether saving a life from a natural disaster is worth the costs, which can influence building codes, zoning laws, and preparations (note how the South doesn’t prepare much for winter storms due to high costs and low probability). Authorities must also consider how many lives mandatory evacuations will save. If an evacuation increases traffic and car accidents that kill more than the hurricane, should the evacuation occur? Discussions over how lockdowns can cause an increase in suicides are analogous. Millions of people have sheltered alone in small spaces for months, while others face domestic violence, alcoholism, and other tragedies. Studies suggest the Great Recession led to 5,000 more suicides than usual, and Europe and America could have 20,000 more suicides than usual because of lockdowns. Hence, lockdowns to save several thousand from the seasonal flu would not be wise, but many looked at this “awful arithmetic” and concluded lockdowns to save hundreds of thousands or over a million people in this pandemic was the right choice. Nevertheless, our societies, and especially our churches, should prepare for a surge in mental health issues whenever any economic calamity occurs.
Trust in Government
When he first moved to the US, finance professor Luigi Zingales was surprised how Americans trusted their government during a disaster. He described how the city government warned citizens about a tornado and told them to tape their windows and stay inside. Zingales first thought, “If the mayor of Boston tells me to tape the windows, it must be that his brother sells tape because that’s the typical thing in Italy.” But no one else thought this because Americans had a higher trust in government than Italians.
Thankfully, this trust helps save lives when the government issues advice during a natural disaster. While there is always uncertainty over hurricanes, Americans can trust the government to give them the best forecast possible (normally). But the COVID-19 pandemic reveals a growing and deep mistrust in government. Many on the left fear Republicans may play-down the pandemic to restart the economy to help Donald Trump’s reelection. Then many on the right fear Democrats will hype the pandemic to weaken the economy to hurt Trump. Meanwhile, most political commentators promote their own side so uncritically that they can’t be trusted, and many people won’t listen to reports from news sources that critique their side. Most Americans trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, but that level recently dipped.
Lives and the economy are at risk if Americans cannot or will not trust their government during the pandemic. If they fear the government is downplaying data about the coronavirus, they will unnecessarily stay home longer, slowing the economic recovery. If they fear the government is hyping the pandemic, they may take more risks that lead to unnecessary deaths.
Collapse of trust during the COVID-19 pandemic is troubling. Trust is a glue that holds society together, and as trust erodes, communities and nation-states can disintegrate.
Civil and Religious Liberties
One of the major controversies for Christians has been whether religious liberty means the government cannot stop worship services to save lives in an emergency. On May 22, Trump sided with the pro-open camp when he declared churches were “essential.” Then the Supreme Court ruled a week later against churches wanting to reopen fully despite California’s orders. The majority made this ruling because similar restrictions applied to secular gatherings, including concerts and movie theaters, and they cited Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), which found the government can enforce vaccinations to protect the community despite individuals’ religious beliefs.[vi]
Paul Marshall argues in these pages that, just as a fire marshal can legitimately declare church buildings unsafe, governments can restrict worship gatherings during a pandemic. Likewise, I’ve seen churches that had to close for repairs after a hurricane damaged the building. But more than dealing with flood damage or fire codes, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a special difficulty because large church gatherings without careful social distancing have been “superspreader” events that kill not only church members but others in the community. In this light, part of Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) suggests the state can constitutionally limit church gatherings in a pandemic: the faithful can make martyrs of themselves, but they can’t make martyrs of others.
As we learn how to open churches safely, let it be. My church leaders said they will continue online worship but won’t resume in-person worship until mid to late summer. Given how social distancing inside our church would be difficult, I concur with their decision.
In every crisis God calls Christians to love their neighbors in unique ways. After hurricanes I’ve seen people clear fallen pines from neighbors’ yards, donate to charities, replace flood-soaked walls, and so on. In the pandemic, wearing a face mask is one easy way to love neighbors by protecting their health. Based on my conversations, the practice seems almost cultural, with almost everyone wearing them in some areas and almost no one wearing them elsewhere. True, God can protect his followers from a virus or hurricane, but he can offer protection by providing face masks in a pandemic and weather forecasts in a storm. My hope is Christians will follow the government’s advice on this as a way to love others.
Christians can show neighborly love in other ways. They can organize remote game or movie nights via Zoom to help the lonely, donate to charities and churches that assist the unemployed, and call people more regularly. Because the disease can spread easily inside offices, people can continue teleworking if possible until Phase Three, as President Trump’s guidelines encourage. Though simple, they can all be acts of Christian neighborly love, and many people I know are already doing them.
Pandemics Aren’t War
Comparing hurricanes and pandemics can help societies think through current dilemmas. Other natural disasters may provide useful analogies, such as comparing the dangers wildfire firefighters and medical professionals face. There are significant differences: hurricanes hit relatively small areas where people shelter for a few hours or days, whereas this pandemic hit the entire country for months, stretching society’s limits.
Despite shortcomings, natural disasters are a better analogy for pandemics than war. Particularly in America, the war metaphor is problematic because it implies the country has more power over the crisis than it does. America’s military prowess is so breathtaking that policymakers don’t often question whether they can win a war, but whether voters support it enough. Yet the US cannot treat COVID-19 like a foreign military. If anything, the virus maneuvers against us and forces us into submission, or kills tens of thousands if we pop out of our foxholes early. But if a pandemic is more like a hurricane, we avoid overconfidence. We cannot force hurricanes into submission but only respond appropriately to minimize death and destruction. So it is with pandemics.
War language in a pandemic also implies societies have an option they don’t: surrender. A Mississippi legislator’s tweet exemplifies this problem. On May 17 he said he respects anyone who “still chooses to participate in the pandemic.” He continued, “I am however done participating… Please quit trying to force me to participate.” If pandemics are like war, his reasoning makes sense. Individuals can surrender, choose not to participate, disobey orders, or conscientiously object. But if pandemics are like hurricanes, his reasoning is laughable lunacy. No one can surrender to a hurricane or stop participating when its surge flattens buildings.
Individuals can, however, decide the hurricane poses little risk in their area and continue normal life. Looking out the window can help them decide if this is wise. Even then, the question is not about participation but risk assessment.
Whereas ominous clouds warn of a storm, a virus’ presence is less certain. Like New Orleans when the pandemic began, people who aren’t careful may not recognize the virus’ presence until weeks later, risking a surge in cases and deaths. This week 14 states reported their highest seven-day average of new infections, and Mississippi reported a record number of new cases on Monday. Twenty-eight states don’t follow CDC guidelines for reporting cases, eroding trust and confidence while obscuring the death totals. Some states conflate viral and antibody testing, which inflates their testing capacity and wrongly suggests they have enough tests to reopen. So citizens there cannot know how bad the outbreaks are or how dangerous going out might be. Increasing cases may bother people less as they become exhausted with pandemic news, especially if they don’t know anyone sick, and each new death may become more an ignorable statistic and less a tragedy. Nevertheless, Americans must make a risk calculation, like a man who sees the darkening sky and decides whether going out with an umbrella is enough, or if he should board-up his windows.
[i] I’ve never been on the coast during a hurricane, but sheltered inland near Vicksburg or Jackson, Mississippi, where the storms are much weaker though sometimes dangerous. My family on the Gulf Coast has gone through multiple hurricanes, including Katrina, so in this article I draw upon those observations and experiences.
[ii] The last question became more confusing on Monday when a World Health Organization official said studies found most asymptomatic people do not spread the illness. Shortly thereafter she emphasized on Twitter that she distinguished between “truly asymptomatic” people—who never show symptoms—and pre-symptomatic people—who can spread the disease before showing symptoms like coughing or a fever. The report she shared also clarified how their conclusions were based on very small sample sizes. In one case, “among 63 asymptomatically-infected individuals studied in China, there was evidence that 9 (14%) infected another person.” Another cited study of nine truly asymptomatic people found none infected another person. On Tuesday the WHO walked back Monday’s comments, explaining that as much as 40 percent of global transmission can be attributed to asymptomatic individuals. Time will tell if Monday’s message was yet another WHO communication failure that sows confusion, mistrust, and anger.
[iii] To reopen safely, some argue America needs more testing, but still struggles despite improvements after initial CDC and FDA failures. According to John Hopkins senior scholar Caitlin Rivers, the US needs at least roughly 500,000 daily to begin serious contact tracing. The Harvard Global Health Institute says the US needs at least 1 million tests daily to isolate the outbreak. Between June 1 and 8, the US tested around 380,000 and 545,000 daily, about the level Rivers suggested. But some states and the CDC have conflated viral tests with antibody tests, which reveal different information. For instance, the antibody tests cannot test for the early stages of COVID-19 and are better for determining if someone once had the disease but was asymptomatic. Some also doubt antibody tests work properly. The Atlantic reports that conflating these tests inflates those states’ testing ability, suggesting they can reopen safely when they cannot.
[iv] In Georgia, which allowed restaurants to reopen in late April, reservations are still down around 64 to 78 percent year-over-year from June 1 to 7; Texas is down 46 to 64 percent; Virginia is down around 80 to 92 percent. In contrast, Germany ranged from being up 32 percent to down 42 percent, depending on the day.
[v] For now, estimates suggest the economy declined roughly 10 percent or so in real terms during lockdowns. Beware of clickbait headlines emphasizing annualized rates of decline, which assume a short-term decline continues unabated for four quarters, like a 50 percent decline this quarter. Those numbers are “nonsensical and misleading.”
[vi] In 1979, the Mississippi Supreme Court added a special addition for the state during Brown v. Stone. When asked to say all individuals had a First Amendment right to religious exemptions from vaccines, even if the state did not recognize the religion, the court instead found all religious exemptions violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause because children in schools wouldn’t be protected from unvaccinated children. Mississippi is therefore one of only three states that does not allow religious exemptions for vaccines (West Virginia and California are the other two), and the state legislature cannot offer them. Now 99 percent of school-age children in the state have received a full dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Some of my political science students in Mississippi hated hearing this during one of my lectures while some loved it, but that was the ruling.