During Outbreak: Put Caregiving First, Bailouts Second


Two Sundays ago, my minister taught the congregation how to dab.

It was in the middle of an impromptu briefing about coronavirus. Rev. Lisa showed us various ways the congregation could greet one another without shaking hands — with an elbow bump or a simple folded-hand greeting of “namaste.”

She also showed us how to convert the act of coughing into your elbow into a once-funky and now passé dance move — and even made us practice for ourselves.

In the 10 days since then, things have gotten more serious. There will be no dancing in the pulpit this Sunday because worship is canceled. Hand sanitizer is suddenly worth more than gold. College students are being told to go home for spring break and not come back.

The COVID-19 outbreak is severe and dangerous. The world will not be the same when it is over.

But large-scale disruptions to our lifestyles are important, and potentially transformative. They call attention to patterns of daily life that otherwise remain hidden, even to ourselves. They reveal places where our priorities have gone askew, and places of weakness — and unexpected strength — in our communities and our world.

The opening weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. have been revealing. While the federal government’s response to protecting public health has been criticized by many as lackluster, its response to the economic impact of COVID-19 has been forceful. The Federal Reserve has already cut interest rates (as if convincing people to borrow more money is the cure for what ails us), and the Trump administration has begun teeing up a new round of tax cuts and bailouts for affected industries.

Make no mistake: The impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods is real and immediate. For Americans living paycheck to paycheck, service workers experiencing a sudden loss of tips, or people who are retired or saving for college and watching their assets vanish with every decline in the stock market, the economic pain is very real, and demands a response.

But the reflexive tendency of policy-makers and the media to focus on the economy first — to measure our degree of panic by the fall of the Dow or a drop in GDP — shows a set of skewed priorities.

What might we focus on instead? How about bolstering our ability to care for one another? Hospitals and public health services around the world are reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, as are the health care professionals at the front lines of combatting the outbreak, many of whom are under unimaginable strain. The concern is a personal one for me: My wife is a physician at a community health center in a low-income neighborhood in Boston — an institution that fights an uphill battle to provide quality care to its patients even at the best of times. Our government should be working — right now — to get health care facilities and providers the materials, guidance and support they need.

Also facing tremendous strain will be the 40 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., many of whom will have difficult decisions to make and heavy burdens to bear in the event the coronavirus outbreak gets out of hand. Now would be a good time for our leaders to recognize their work as just as valuable as paid employment that helps the economy to function.

Those of us worried about loved ones who may be put at heightened risk by the virus — and who we may not be able to visit with them face to face due to travel limitations or limits on visits to nursing homes and hospitals — also deserve attention and care. Our community institutions — churches, nonprofits and other voluntary associations — play an important role in keeping us together and sane, and often struggle to do a lot with a minimum of resources. They, too, deserve focus and appreciation in these difficult times.

Now, with people struggling and in fear, is no time to prioritize bailing out the cruise ship industry or the fracking industry. When it comes to the health of the broader economy, we are likely to have more time to remedy the economic wounds than we will to address the physical and emotional wounds the virus will inflict.

Our policy-makers, from the president on down, should be focusing their attention on minimizing and ultimately healing the physical and emotional damage from COVID-19. Perhaps by putting the needs of our friends, neighbors and communities first, this disruption can remind us that a society is more than just an economy — and that caregiving and public health should be higher priorities all the time, not just when crisis hits.