What, if anything, has Covid-19 taught us?

by Darrel Moellendorf
at the UURM Service on Sunday 6 June 2021

It’s now been more than two weeks since my second AZ shot. So, I enjoy full coverage. I hope some of you can also say that, and that most of you at least have an appointment for your first shot.

There is a strange relief in being vaccinated. People have experienced the stress of their own vulnerability differently. For the most part, I was able to confine it to the background, but it did remain there like a quietly simmering pot. I took more risks than some friends I know and less than others. Throughout the lock-downs, there were a few friends I would see, but rarely more than two households at a time. This is all to say that the pandemic was on my mind, even though I rarely felt very worried. Still, now that I am two weeks out from my second vaccination, I feel a sense of relief.

But it’s a strange sense of relief. It’s disturbing to feel the relief because I know that so much of the world is still suffering. The stories coming out of India recently, the bodies piled high, the crematoriums full, the relatives desperately searching for hospitals for their sick kin, provide a glimpse of a horror that I have never experienced and hope never to have to. Because of my health history, I was in the second priority group in Germany; I received my first shot back in early March, long before almost everyone I know. But a person with a similar medical history in India probably has not yet been vaccinated. The difference is not vulnerability. A bleak reminder that the distribution of vitally important medicine in a world marked by extreme inequalities is not according ethical principles. I didn’t learn that the world was deeply unequal as a result of the Covid-19 virus. I knew that already. I didn’t learn that medical care in the world is deeply unequal. I already knew that life expectancy in high income countries is about 80 years, and in much of the lower income countries its 57. The difference is mostly due infant mortality rates. Far more young children die in poor countries. But if they make it to their 5th birthday, they are just about as likely to live as long as a child born in Germany.

But I did learn that when the chips really are down, the world does not come together. Despite the rhetoric of solidarity that was expressed last fall when a vaccination was in sight, wealthy countries contracted for many more vaccinations then the size of their populations. Poorer countries couldn’t compete and had to rely on the poorly funded COVAX facility, a facility meant to ensure distribution according to need around the world. But it has been hampered by insufficient funding by high income countries and their cornering the market on pre-orders of vaccines. There is, of course, a finite supply of jabs. So, in a very real sense, my being vaccinated means that someone else is not.

Discussions of this situation are not completely absent in the media. And the US has recently announced its intention of donating 25 million doses of vaccines. But the unequal access is hardly a moral scandal. Many people seems to accept that this is just the way the world works. We accommodate ourselves to the inequality and the tremendous suffering it imposes on others very easily.

This might come back to haunt us. With every transmission of the virus, there is the possibility of a mutation. But, the longer the virus remains circulating and mutating around the world, the greater the likelihood that a variant of the virus that is not stopped by the manner in which the vaccine primes our immune system, a so-called vaccine escape mutation, will arise. Then we are back to where we were in the early spring of 2020.

This failure to take the big picture into consideration could bode ill for climate change. We are consigned to a warming world. If we act very quickly, we can still limit that warming to 1.5˚C or 2˚C. The small difference between those numbers of 0.5˚C means hundreds of millions more people will caught in poverty due to climate change. Even what we would consider to be successful climate change mitigation, limiting warming to 1.5˚C or 2˚C will require major projects to adapt to climate change around the world. Poorer countries will require assistance. The Covid-19 vaccine experience suggests that the assistance will be insufficient. Hundreds of millions may suffer desperately, but they will be far away, and we may also accommodate ourselves to that.

This also may come back to haunt us. As suffering multiplies, people will move, and their movements will create disruptions, especially as they trudge across international borders or set sail by the thousands in derelict vessels across the Mediterranean. We have accommodated ourselves to a thousand or two people drowning in the Mediterranean each year. But what about 50,000? The US can build a wall at the southern border, but at some point it becomes an exercise like the walls built in The Walking Dead to keep the zombies out. Those walls always get overrun by the hordes.

What, perhaps, we might learn from Covid-19 and what would be especially good going forward is a sense of international solidarity. In the last couple of years of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s focus turned toward the problems of war and poverty, including global poverty. In one of his last writings, he offered a profound expression of international solidarity:

“A genuine program on the part of the wealthy nations to make prosperity a reality for the poor nations will in the final analysis enlarge the prosperity of all. One of the best proofs that reality hinges on moral foundations is the fact that when men and governments work devotedly for the good of others, they achieve their own enrichment in the process.”

When governments work for the good of others, they achieve their own enrichment as well. This is a lesson that is deeply important to learn, a lesson that I think many have not yet quite accepted from Covid-19, at least not in the fullness of its importance. Of course, many people are irritated by their inability to travel internationally. And when we hear the stories of the suffering in India, we are horrified. But as long as the suffering remains distant, we may not be motivated to act politically. If we believed that working for the health of people far away secured our health as well, we might think differently.

To the extent that people actually think about this, there is probably an element of gambling involved. We don’t know that a vaccine escape mutation will develop, and we can get our lives back to normal more quickly if we focus on matters at home. That’s a gamble that might pay off. But it’s a risky attitude for approaching an interconnected world with lots of shared problems, including the problems of adapting to climate change.

It’s also to be an attitude that seems rather comfortable with gambling with the lives of the poor in the world. And it seems too well-accommodated with being ahead of others in the queue.

Living together in a world based on solidarity would raise many difficult questions.

How much should we do for the sake of the international common good and how much for the good of our fellow citizens? In which matters are there really common interests and in which not? What do we do if other countries don’t take up the call of solidarity?

But these are questions that we can easily ignore, if we don’t take the idea of solidarity seriously.

I’m not offering answers to the questions. I am urging us today to heed the call of solidarity and to take them seriously.

Shalom, Amen, and Namaste.