War on COVID-19 & The Battle for Economy

Militaristic metaphors and analogies for the COVID-19 pandemic have become ubiquitous. There are soldiers, front lines under siege, trenches, weapons, and battles with an “invisible enemy.” We have marshaled resources and deploy personnel and armaments on a massive scale. Military units have been called into action to distribute supplies and accompany the dead. Naval Ships Mercy and Comfort docked in U.S. ports. Fighter jet fly-overs salute valiant healthcare workers. President Trump, calling himself a “wartime president,” has recently extended the metaphor, drafting citizens as warriors in the battle for the economy. The metaphor works because it taps into people’s experiences of fear, conveys the urgency of the moment, compels a call for action and sacrifice, clarifies the nature of the stakes involved, and evokes admiration for exemplars of courage.
There is an underside to war as the primary image shaping our moral imagination during the pandemic. The war metaphor has been used before: the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and the war on terrorism. We must acknowledge that these conflicts have, in effect, become wars on migrants, racially minoritized groups, addicts, the poor, and the stranger. And we cannot ignore the ways in which illness, contagion, and plague are themselves metaphors that have been applied to stigmatized groups and support racist ideologies. Casualties of these other wars are now being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Signs that the war on COVID-19 is vulnerable to these distortions was evident early on in speech that fueled xenophobia. It continues with cavalier acknowledgements that people will die for the sake of the economy.
The just war tradition in the Catholic Church provides a set of criteria aimed at limiting recourse to war, and when war is justified, to limit its harms. If we persist in using the war metaphor, we would do well to think about how these criteria might at least give us pause. We must interrogate our motivations (respect for the dignity of all people), intentions (health and safety), authority (those with experience, expertise, and care for the common good), the measure of our response (the harms are in reasonable proportion to the benefits), whether we have done everything we could to prevent crisis in the first place (listening to prophetic experts and building trust among nations), and our ability to tell the difference between, respond to, and protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus itself and to its economic effects.
Pope Francis’ image of the field hospital is provides an important corrective and offers way through for Christians who long to be peacebuilders rather than warriors in the crisis. Field hospitals have literally popped up in major U.S. cities and the image is particularly fruitful when thinking about ethical responses to healthcare crises. First, the image of a field hospital resonates with a desire to offering healing to those who are wounded and suffering. Second, a field hospital is quite literally in the field. A field hospital does its work in, or very close to, the theater of action. It is a risky post and is, in many ways, completely at odds with its context: a place of healing in a situation of death dealing violence, and a place that honors shared human vulnerability in a situation of enemy-making. Medical corps have provided a way for conscientious objectors to participate in a just cause. A field hospital does not keep the mess of the war out. It may try to keep violence out, but the mess such violence leaves in its wake is responded to with care and competence; a field hospital is in the war but not of it. Third, a field hospital is mobile. It goes where it is most urgently needed and adapts the circumstances.
However insightful, we must be alert to the liabilities of field hospital imagery. It keeps us in “crisis mode.” The moral stance is a reactive one. We wait until a crisis becomes severe before addressing it and avoid making needed changes to our longstanding habits and practices. The result is an exclusive focus on highly technological emergency interventions and rather than the equally challenging work of transforming social injustices. However, we cannot put off addressing the systemic injustices that led to the crisis in the first place. That is the challenge that those of us who are not medically trained are called to take up now.
For Pope Francis, the image of the field hospital is ultimately about the call to mercy. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) provides the gospel framework for understanding mercy. Rather than concerning himself primarily with religious purity, or prioritizing his personal plans, the Samaritan responds to the robbed and wounded man on the road with great compassion. The Samaritan had set out on a dangerous road where he could have become a victim himself. He binds the man’s wounds, brings him to a safe place to recuperate, and provides resources for the process of healing. The Samaritan did not see an enemy in the wounded man, but a neighbor. As moral theologian James Keenan, S.J. puts it, he “enters into the chaos” of the man’s life to help him.
The most important and unfolding message of the field hospital is that of mercy, the willingness to enter into the chaos and confusion that illness can bring to persons, families, and communities. Mercy is also the willingness to enter the kinds of chaos that lead to poor health: racism, sexism, gender discrimination, poverty, violence, environmental devastation, personal insecurity, and political instability. Mercy is the good news that those with the most urgent need for resources of healing will not be abandoned, even when providing those resources may come with risk and sacrifice. It is the promise of presence even, and perhaps especially, when technology reaches its limits. It is a way of peace and non-violence in the midst of crisis.

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