By Ed Mechmann

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, one of the terms we are hearing more and more is “social distancing”. It is a technique used by public health authorities to contain the potential spread of a disease by limiting when and where people can gather, restricting travel to or from certain locations, closing public facilities (like schools), and even recommending that people stand a certain distance apart from each other. Together with basic hygienic techniques, like washing hands or disinfecting surfaces, social distancing is considered a significant weapon against the spread of the disease.

All that is good. We should heed the advice of experts and public health authorities, in order to avoid panic, disinformation, or a false sense of complacency. This disease is a genuine threat to public health, particularly to vulnerable people.

But I have to confess to some unease about the concept of “social distancing”, not for the prevention of disease, but for what I see as its potential larger significance.

We are currently living in what everyone acknowledges as a globalized society that is paradoxically characterized by polarization, social isolation and radical individualism. Economies are interdependent across all national boundaries – as can be seen in the serious economic aftershocks from the disruption in supply chains from China. Modern communication, particularly social media and the internet in general, spread information (and disinformation) around the world in moments. The ease and ubiquity of air transport means that every point in the world is within a day or so of traveling for vast numbers of people.

But at the same time as these global forces of unification, we are seeing so many deeply troubling signs of division. Stark political polarization is rife not just in the United States but in virtually every democratic nation. Partisans are at the point where they don’t just disagree on policy principles and prescriptions, but they seem to inhabit different factual worlds and are coming to distrust and even hate each other. Tensions between nations continue to be very high, and the current situation has made it even worse.

Social media has received much deserved criticism for creating a simulacrum of society, where there is widespread contact between people but very little authentic relationship. And an ethos of radical individualism has not just eroded common moral values, but has even put into question what it even means to be human.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis correctly diagnosed our society as being based on a flawed technocratic paradigm, which reduces every problem to a pragmatic matter that can be addressed solely through science or engineering. In this reductive view, the human element is often eclipsed.

It is here where the Church can make a vitally important contribution – ensuring that the best response is to reflect the love that Jesus showed to all mankind.

We cannot practice a kind of “social distancing” that goes beyond the mere physical but that instead leads to ostracism and abandonment, particularly of vulnerable persons. One of the most dangerous responses to Coronavirus is already being discussed in Italy – rationing health care by essentially writing off elderly people in favor of young patients.  This is unacceptable – we cannot solve a problem like this by losing our sense of solidarity and our humanity.

Jesus never hesitated to bring his healing touch to the lepers who were the outcasts of society. Throughout history, the Church has been in the forefront of treating victims of plagues, even at great risk to themselves – think of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Roch, St. Martin de Porres, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and countless others. Our Catholic hospitals and health care agencies are certainly going to be in the lead of this.

Even ordinary Christians have a significant role to play. We can visit elderly relatives and friends and make sure they’re healthy and not afraid, and arrange for homebound people to receive the Eucharist. Catholic employers can be flexible about work arrangements, like allowing telecommuting for parents whose children’s schools are closed or being flexible about sick leave. This is a time to show our love for one another, and to show that we will face this problem together as a community of believers.

We must also show that we are united in prayer for deliverance from this disease, for the safety of all those who are tending the sick, for the recovery of the sick and salvation of those who have died. This is a time to show that we not only have confidence in pragmatic measures, but that we are certain that God will bring us through any tribulation.

May I suggest that this would be a good time for all to unite in praying Psalm 91?

[1] He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
who abides in the shadow of the Almighty,
[2] will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
[3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
[4] he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
[5] You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
[6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
[7] A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand;
but it will not come near you.
[8] You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
[9] Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
the Most High your habitation,
[10] no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
[11] For he will give his angels charge of you
to guard you in all your ways.
[12] On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
[13] You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
[14] Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
[15] When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will rescue him and honor him.
[16] With long life I will satisfy him,
and show him my salvation.