Virtue and Vice in the Pandemic

Pandemic Coverage


The present COVID-19 crisis has been with us for months. The threat seemed to be inching along until a switch was thrown, the danger multiplied and panic set in. That transition from security to fear seems to have changed everything, especially people's behaviors.

Parker. VIRTUE and VICE
Illustration by Curtis Parker

At my family's home in Pennsylvania last month, I stopped at my local grocery store to pick up a few things and was simply wished "good luck" by someone leaving the store. I didn't understand the message until I saw checkout lines of overloaded carts stretching to the back of the store. Shelves were empty, and some customers were grabbing large quantities of whatever they could find. Colleagues back in St. Louis reported witnessing fights over basic household items. Nationally, there were some particularly egregious cases of hoarding and price gouging over basic resources. It was just a matter of days before when things had been normal. Faced with extraordinary circumstances, some failed the test of their virtues.

Most others remained committed to charity in the midst of chaos. Courtesy and kindness flourished in grocery stores and special consideration given to the elderly.

Fear seems as contagious as the virus. While the virus may have been the catalyst, the fear was ultimately about being powerless. In the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, our virtues and vices are put to the test.

Although times of crisis may force difficult moral choices upon us, in the "ordinary" days of our lives we make moral choices through the habits we choose. The formal names of the habits we choose are virtues and vices. Virtues steer our actions toward basic human goods, while vices are destructive of those same human goods.

Within the course of an entire year, there are moments in the secular and liturgical calendars when we pause to think about the habits we practice. For example, when the holiday season ends each year, we turn to January resolutions around weight loss plans, gym memberships, maybe even a "Dry January." We may be willing to rid ourselves of a bad habit, or better yet, replace it with a better one.

Leading a virtuous life is not easy, and many of us need a stronger commitment. Those who regularly work out recognize that the gym is full in January, but less so as February and March follow. Many of us lapse into habits of comfort and don't sustain the practices that make us healthier.

The challenge to maintain better physical health is paralleled in the liturgical calendar. Lent is the time when we recommit to taking care of our spiritual life. The annual cycles give us an opportunity to think about who we are and how we are moving toward being better people.

In a different way than such annual reminders, extraordinary events like natural disasters and pandemics also give us unexpected occasions to think about how we orient our lives.

COVID-19 has affected the entire world. Travel restrictions, shortages of basic resources and the possibility that medical resources may have to be rationed are all challenging. While the health threat is very real and we need to take all necessary steps to combat it, a global crisis like this offers us an opportunity to hold up a mirror to recognize who we are, both individually and as a community.

In the present crisis, it may seem that the danger of infection will overwhelm us. Yet, this situation has occurred in human experience with some regularity. In the 3rd century, the Plague of Cyprian ravaged the Roman Empire for almost 20 years. The Black Death killed as many as 200 million people in Europe in the mid-14th century. More recently, the flu epidemic of 1918, the Swine Flu and, of course, HIV/AIDS have all threatened the human population.

In the midst of the crisis, it might seem as though many have lost their way. Yet times like these are the crucial moments when Catholic health care can reaffirm our own "virtues," which are outlined in the social teaching of the Church. Animated by the love of Christ, our healing and compassion can help to combat the fear of these situations.

Instead of yielding to anxiety about impersonal, destructive threats, we need to act for the Dignity of the Human Person and affirm the meaning of our lives, what death means spiritually, and how that understanding animates our daily actions.

Rejecting a culture of selfish individualism, we need to emphasize the Common Good and our social obligation to help one another.

Instead of hoarding resources or privileging the wealthy few with access to testing and care, we emphasize Justice in the equitable way we make resources available to everyone.

Rather than abdicating to address emerging problems, we practice Subsidiarity, where all levels of society are empowered to use their abilities to solve problems.

When someone demonizes one population over another, we affirm our common humanity and emphasize Solidarity through the common bonds that we share with each other.

Instead of understanding economics only in terms of how it strengthens markets or affects 401(k)s, we embrace the Preferential Option for the Poor, where we consider the effects of these events from the perspective of those who are most vulnerable.

If workers' jobs are threatened when the pandemic affects their ability to work, we uphold the Dignity of Work and its promise of just wages and a steady income.

Disbelieving short-term fixes to a broken health care system, we exercise responsible Stewardship through advocacy for health equity, equal access to basic health care and a concern for our common health.

These are the communal virtues we share. Extraordinary times offer us a moment to reflect on our achievements and our failings, and to recommit ourselves to them.


BRIAN M. KANE is senior director, ethics, the Catholic Health Association, St. Louis.


Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.