The Covid pandemic has been a test of what we value most. First and foremost, it has asked whether we value freedom more than safety or vice versa. Like other crises, it brought to the fore once again considerations about the common good.
Prolifers have had to ask themselves questions about the vaccines and their remote link to abortion. Was it better to forgo them or not? We have also had to ask whether the most consistently pro-life position to take over the course of the pandemic was to support strict lockdowns on the grounds that this would save the most lives.
Religious leaders have had to ask themselves to what extent they favored restrictions on public worship in the name of health and safety. They were confronted with what to do when the state seemed to be going too far in its demands. To what extent should it be challenged? Should civil disobedience be considered? Has public health become too dominant a concern? As religious believers, are we losing sight of a transcendent frame of reference in which physical health is far less important (although very important) than our ultimate spiritual destiny?
I write from Ireland, and so I will draw heavily on what happened here. In American terms, the response of the Irish government resembled that of the bluest of blue states. We had some of the longest lockdowns anywhere. No other nation in Europe prevented public worship for a longer period. We prided ourselves on the lives saved by these measures, although if you compare us with other sparsely populated countries on the edge of Europe that underwent less strict lockdowns (such as Denmark, Finland, and Norway), our performance was about average.
We Irish looked on aghast at what was happening in America under Donald Trump and in Britain under Boris Johnson. We were pleased that our response was not as chaotic. After Covid vaccines were approved, almost all of us rolled up our sleeves—as I did myself after listening to leading orthodox Catholic thinkers like Professor Robert George, who said it was morally licit to do so.
The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on the island in late February 2020. At the time, our equivalent of Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Tony Holohan, head of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), was not too worried. Indeed, on March 3, he was predicting that we would have only a “sporadic” number of cases. The government refused to close our borders. After Donald Trump had barred travel from China a few weeks before this, Ireland joined in the chorus condemning him as “xenophobic.” In this way, too, we were reacting like a blue state. The EU also opposed closing borders, and the World Health Organisation took the same position. The virus knows no borders, we were told.
At this point in the pandemic, Tony Holohan was opposed to the general public wearing face masks because masks might lull them into a false sense of security and therefore be counterproductive. He did not want to stop people from visiting nursing homes, even though the nursing homes themselves recommended this—for very good reason as it turned out. We believed we were “following the science.”
But by St. Patrick’s Day, Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) at the time, addressed the nation to announce wider-ranging restrictions. At that time, we were hearing predictions that we could reach 85,000 deaths out of a population of 5 million. This would be equivalent to 5.6 million deaths in the United States, a colossal figure. People were understandably terrified. In fact, they had started to stay home on their own. (I was in Dublin city centre the evening Leo Varadkar gave his address. It was almost deserted.)
A few days later a full lockdown was imposed. In less than a month, we had gone from predicting only a sporadic number of cases, to forecasting tens of thousands dead. The “science” Ireland was following shifted from severely underestimating the virus to massively overestimating it. Suddenly, closing borders became the sensible thing to do, and as soon as supplies of personal protective equipment became plentiful, so did wearing face masks. Aside from essential workers, no one was allowed to leave home except to exercise or to shop for essentials. Even then, you had to stay within two kilometers of your house.
As a journalist, I was counted as an essential worker. So long as I could show ID and proof of occupation, I could travel where I liked. Often, I had to go through police checkpoints. Mostly I took advantage of my press pass to attend NPHET press conferences at which we awaited the latest pronouncements from the NPHET team as though they were religious revelations. You were barely allowed to question them, because they were garbed in the majesty and authority of science.
The philosopher and priest Ivan Illich predicted such a day would come. Illich was a fierce critic of what he insisted were the overweening demands of public health. He crystallized his critique in the book Medical Nemesis, published in 1974. Illich said that one day, in a medical emergency, we would grant doctors the extraordinary power of generals in war. He predicted: “He who is assigned control over death ceases to be an ordinary human Because they form a charmed borderland not quite of this world, the time-span and the community space claimed by the medical enterprise are as sacred as their religious and military counterparts.”
In keeping with Illich’s thesis, figures like Tony Holohan and Tony Fauci were no longer regarded as ordinary mortals. They had been placed far above us. They seemed to have the power of life and death. By listening to them we would be led, like the Israelites, across the desert and into the Promised Land of Health and Safety.
That sounds more cynical than I intend it to be. It made sense that public health specialists would be given special authority in a medical emergency. It would have been extremely foolish to do otherwise. We didn’t really know what we were dealing with early on, and our heads were filled with images of hospitals filling up and people dying in northern Italy. Things did seem apocalyptic.
But no one should be above questioning. In the midst of the pandemic, Tony Holohan became almost untouchable. The media hung on his every word. The national broadcaster RTÉ instantly canonized him. A fearful nation turned to him in their hour of desperation, and he became far more powerful than the Taoiseach. Only once was he publicly challenged by a major politician, and that was not until the autumn of 2020, when we were on the brink of another lockdown. That politician was Leo Varadkar, now Tanaiste (deputy prime minister). He felt things were going too far, but under fire from an angry media, the public, and opposition parties, he had to beat a retreat.
The first lockdown lasted until early summer 2020. Even when it was lifted, we were not allowed full freedom in case the virus might gallop out of control again. In the meantime, the lockdown had wrought havoc in our nursing homes, just as it had in American states such as New York.
But we are not relying on the benefit of hindsight when we say we should have known nursing homes would be especially vulnerable. The managers of nursing homes were warning NPHET before we locked down that they needed additional supports. In early March 2020, they wanted to stop visitors coming in to see relatives in case they brought the virus with them, but at first NPHET advised against this out of concern that the elderly residents would feel socially isolated.
This was a legitimate concern. Nonetheless, the view of the nursing home managers showed their insight into the difficulties they were likely to face even before the pandemic really took hold. They knew that congregated settings were an especially inviting target for a fast-spreading virus. They also had experience from bad flu seasons in previous years. But the government and NPHET seemed to have eyes for the hospitals only. Terrified by the scenes from northern Italy of hospital overcrowding, they wanted to free as many beds as possible as fast as possible. This meant cancelling everything except emergency procedures. It also involved clearing elderly people out of the hospitals into the nursing homes. Even if relatively few of those patients had Covid, little thought seemed to be given to what would happen as the nursing homes filled up.
In addition, the hospitals were grabbing what they could of personal protective equipment, which was then in short supply. The nursing homes could not compete with the state in that market. The state was also competing for medical staff, which once again left nursing homes in the lurch. The upshot is that, as in New York and indeed in many other U.S. states and European countries, the nursing homes were hit the hardest by the virus. This is astounding when we consider that elderly people were especially vulnerable to Covid-19, and that their general health vulnerabilities and immunological deficits in the face of a “novel virus” were well known.
As of March 27, 2020, there were clusters of the virus in just four care homes. By mid-April, it had rocketed to 196 care homes, out of around 500 such institutions in Ireland.
Readers will probably recall all the praise Andrew Cuomo received for his handling of the virus in the early days. Similarly, the government in Ireland and NPHET trailed clouds of glory for their early response. Cuomo was contrasted with Donald Trump, while the Irish government was contrasted with (believe it or not), Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.
Boris Johnson became a hate figure in Ireland after he was attacked for his part in persuading the British people to vote in favor of leaving the EU in 2016. We loved it whenever he found himself in political trouble, which was often. When he did not shut down England quite as fast as Ireland did, and the death toll in England mounted, we congratulated ourselves on our foresight in ordering a full lockdown before he did. It didn’t seem to occur to us that England is much more densely populated than Ireland, that it has an older population, and that it contains London, a major international hub with gigantic numbers moving in and out of it every day.
In other words, we could hardly be compared with England. It made more sense to compare ourselves with other small countries on the edge of Europe, like Denmark, for example, which suffered fewer deaths per million than Ireland, partly because it did a better job of protecting the nursing homes.
At the time of writing, Ireland had suffered just under 6,500 Covid-related deaths, equating to almost 1,300 people per million. Denmark has had 656 deaths per million. The UK figure is 2,359, and the American number is 2,875 per million. But as in America, politics totally corrupted our view of what was happening. In the U.S. it was a case of bad Trump versus good Cuomo. In Ireland, it was good Leo Varadkar and good NPHET versus bad Boris Johnson.
I attended quite a few of NPHET’s press conferences in the early months of the pandemic; at this time when nursing homes were accounting for a vastly disproportionate number of the Covid-related deaths in the country, it was amazing how few questions journalists asked NPHET representatives about the matter. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the narrative of the All-Wise NPHET that most of the media were presenting to the public.
Meanwhile, no one was allowed to attend public worship. Bishops did not have to close churches completely—they were allowed to keep them open for private prayer if they wanted—but some decided to shut them anyway. They went beyond the demands of NPHET because they were so terrified of the virus. Note that they were not following the science, because the science never said to go this far. Ireland ended up with the longest bans on public worship in the whole of Europe. Over the course of three lockdowns, we could not attend public worship for months on end.
And there was little pushback from church leaders of any denomination. By and large, they meekly accepted what was happening. Some of them seemed happy to become glorified health and safety officers. By contrast, in the likes of Italy, France, Britain, and the U.S., Catholic bishops were fighting back. For example, after the first lockdown began to be eased in Italy in summer 2020, the Italian government said museums could open but Catholics could not return to Mass. The Italian bishops challenged the government over this clear case of discrimination, and it backed down.
In France, bishops were willing to go to court. In England, religious leaders from right across the faith spectrum wrote to Boris Johnson as England went into another lockdown at the end of 2020. They challenged him to justify halting public worship again. Religious leaders pointed out that they had been keeping places of worship safe by using recommended social distancing and hygiene measures. Johnson and his scientific advisers had to agree, and public worship was allowed to resume. It has not been suspended since. By contrast, in Ireland, the government, acting on the advice of NPHET, stopped public worship again as 2020 was drawing to a close and did not allow it to resume until May 10, 2021. At one point, you could potentially be fined for going to Mass. If you didn’t pay the fine, you could go to prison. It was an incredible situation and probably unconstitutional.
A priest in county Cavan who was allowing worshippers to enter his church while he was saying Mass was warned by Gardai (police) not to do so. They put up roadblocks on the approaches to his church to stop people from driving there. As the parish priest, Fr. P. J. Hughes, stated in late March 2021:
The guards [police] attacked me and accused me of spreading the virus.
A guard told me that I was putting the lives of elderly people at risk. It’s a sad day that three Garda cars are circling around this church. Have they nothing else to do? God help us.
It is our faith that brings us here and they told me that I wasn’t reading the statistics and didn’t know what was going on. I told them I did not accept the negative message being poured out by RTÉ. It’s not fair.
This is sectarianism. This is against our faith. It’s a sectarian act against our Catholic Church encouraged by the Government who don’t believe in God anymore.
He received a fine of €500, which he refused to pay.
The bishops said very little in response to incidents like this. Instead, it was left up to a businessman, Declan Ganley, to issue a legal challenge to the measure on religious freedom grounds, but his case was never heard.
At a NPHET press conference in September 2020, as increased restrictions were being reimposed on Dublin, I asked the deputy chief medical officer how they could justify stopping public worship again when almost every other country in Europe was permitting it. He said the aim was to decrease contacts to reduce spread of the disease. He explained that this meant preventing people from meeting in settings considered to be “less important” in the context of a pandemic.
However, at this stage you could still go to the gym or a hairdresser, and therefore NPHET’s thinking was clearly that both these activities were more important than attending Mass or other religious services. It was apparent that public worship was extremely low on the priority list of both NPHET and the government, lower even than it was in ostensibly far more secular countries like Sweden or France. The official attitude toward religion seemed not so much hostile as indifferent, which is worse in some ways. When people could attend public worship, churches operated very safely and strictly by the health guidelines.
As I write this, weekly attendance at Mass has not recovered to its prepandemic levels of about a quarter of the adult population. Many are still too frightened to return or have simply lost the habit.
On a more positive note, the idea of the common good enjoyed something of a revival during the pandemic, even if that precise term was rarely used. People were being asked to curb their personal liberties for the sake of a greater cause, and at first almost all of us were happy to do so, because we weren’t sure how severe the pandemic might be. But as the months passed, a curious thing began to happen. People who are normally vociferously pro-choice were the most likely to remain in favor of strict lockdown measures, while quite a few on the pro-life side were more in favor of giving more leeway to individual liberty. This was particularly pronounced in countries like the U.S.
I was certainly a critic of what I saw as disproportionate restrictions, like the over-long ban on public worship, but I am also strongly pro-life. How do I explain this seeming contradiction? Surely if I am pro-life then I should have favored very strong restrictions in order to save as many lives as possible?
But I would make a clear distinction between death from a natural cause, such as a disease, and deliberate killing. I am against deliberately and intentionally killing an innocent human being such as an unborn child. But obviously we cannot ultimately prevent natural death. Yes, in a pandemic the chances of dying from a disease rise rapidly, and restrictions are justified to bring down the death toll. However, the aim cannot be to bring the death toll down to zero. We make that our goal with no other natural disease. We know that the curbs on personal freedom required to do so would be grossly disproportionate. Life involves a certain amount of inherent risk. Trying to drive risk down to zero is utopian (because unachievable) and also requires tyrannical measures, like all attempts to bring about Utopia.
With Covid we needed to try and strike a balance between the social good of reducing the number of deaths, and other social goods such as the right to go to school, to make a livelihood, to be treated for non-Covid illnesses, to attend public worship, to visit family, friends, and neighbors. Indeed, striking this balance is exactly what the common good is all about.
It was entirely consistent with a pro-life ethos to come down on the side of fewer restrictions overall—or indeed of more restrictions. Either was a prudential judgment, which is not the case with abortion or euthanasia, as these are inherently wrong. But if it was relatively easy to see why people who are pro-life would reject what they saw as disproportionate restrictions, it was harder to understand why those who normally shout loudest about personal autonomy and “choice” should have been so strongly in favor of lockdowns, or indeed, vaccine mandates. Those who advocate assisted suicide and abortion in the name of “choice” were also more likely to support measures designed to reduce deaths from a natural disease to a minimum, even at the cost of other social goods.
Perhaps the commonality is a desire for control. Abortion is an attempt to regain control over your life, as is assisted suicide when you can no longer live the way you want. Covid-19 seemed like a big, uncontrollable, random event, a crisis that had to be tamed by almost any means. The pro-life, or indeed the religious viewpoint, is that life is not always controllable, that unplanned events can happen, and sometimes we need to accept them as gracefully as we can, even if they involve self-sacrifice. Ivan Illich wrote that we were losing the “art of suffering.” I think what he meant by this is that our forebears knew life does not always go the way we want, and it is sometimes better to accept this with dignity rather than fight it all the way, which can lead to even more misery.
Our response to Covid was over-dominated by technocrats who were too likely to recommend disproportionate restrictions and were not even viewing public health (or anything else) holistically, because public health can’t be reduced to a desire to control one disease, even in a pandemic. It was understandable in the early stages that we would listen to technocrats of various hues above anyone else, but later, other voices calling for a more balanced approach needed more of a hearing, including scientists who believed some of the restrictions were going too far. The pandemic was actually an excellent opportunity for religious leaders to address big, ultimate issues like this. Alas, for the most part they failed. Philosophers weren’t any better.
When we come to reflect properly on the pandemic and our responses to it, we must realize that we cannot allow a certain kind of narrow, technocratic thinking to gain control again in the way it did, stoking people’s fears and reducing the common good, and life itself, to an excessive fear of one disease. At the end of the day, deciding how best to balance different social and private goods in a pandemic isn’t even a scientific question, but a political, philosophical, moral, and yes, even a religious one.
David Quinn is a columnist with The Irish Independent and the Irish Catholic and the founder and director of The Iona Institute in Dublin (email@example.com.).