Principles for a Just Pandemic

A framework to help us negotiate today’s trade-offs in public life.

David Henreckson
David Henreckson is Director of the Institute for Leadership and Service at Valparaiso University. He has a Ph.D in Religion from Princeton University. His first book is The Immortal Commonwealth: Covenant, Community, and Political Resistance in Early Reformed Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He is a long-time baseball obsessive, a homegrown Midwesterner, and an aspiring latter-day scholastic theologian.

Crises—whether arising from politics or pandemics—give us circumstances that seem utterly complex. Lack of control characterizes moments like ours. Technocrats and idealists find themselves in the same flailing position, struggling to find a quick fix. Elected officials, business owners, and ordinary citizens all face countless practical decisions—on a daily basis—that affect public health. The sheer number of practical decisions that we make on a daily basis is often overwhelming.

One of the curious and sad features of our current health crisis is that we often forget that most of us, presumably, want the same thing: to preserve human life and the fabric of society. We want to come out on the other side of this tragedy as whole as possible.

The problem, of course, is that we often identify competing means to the same end. So, for instance, you might presuppose that the shutdown of non-essential commerce will lead to all sorts of ills: bankruptcy or enormous government debt. Or you might point out the significant psychological toll that accompanies enforced social isolation. It might be natural to conclude, then, that it is worth getting straight to the point, so to speak: let the virus do its worst, then move on. Vulnerable segments of the population might need to serve as collateral damage.

On the other hand, if you believe that flattening the curve of infection—preserving the health system’s ability to serve the sick—will save an exponential number of human lives, you will likely conclude that the economic costs are well worth it. We should weather the long storm, and only afterward let the economy begin to heal.

Means and ends.

This is not to endorse any kind of relativism. There are reasons—hopefully informed by expert knowledge and experience—behind the means that we choose. But this is where the debates often fall apart.

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