Being morally responsible during the pandemic

The following is an an advisory statement from the Medical-Moral Commission of the Archdiocese of Dubuque submitted to The Witness by Dr. Janine Idziak.

To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the lives of some 130,000 people in the United States, and the death toll is expected to continue to rise.  There are measures which can be taken to control the spread of the virus, such as frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, maintaining social distancing, and wearing a face mask in public spaces. Apart from any legal mandates, we have a moral obligation to personally undertake such measures.

This moral obligation is grounded in our duty to care for our own health as stewards of the gift of life given to us by God.  It is also grounded in our duty towards the common good and our duty not to harm other people or even subject them to the risk of serious harm.  A practical challenge in dealing with COVID-19 is the fact that asymptomatic individuals can be carriers of the virus and transmit it to others.

Wearing a face mask has been controversial. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that emerging evidence from clinical and laboratory studies shows that cloth face coverings reduce the spray of respiratory droplets that play a role in the spread of the COVID-19 virus — (June 28, 2020: http://cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html).

An international group of university health care professionals studied 198 countries and found that “societal norms and government policies supporting mask-wearing by the public were independently associated with lower per-capita mortality from COVID-19”— (June 15, 2020: http://researchgate.net/publi­ca­tion/342198360_Association_of_country-wide_coronavirus_mortality_with_demographics_testing_lockdowns_and_public_wearing_ of_masks).

As noted in one newspaper editorial, “It is our moral responsibility as a human being to ask ourselves this question when we look in the mirror: do we want to bear the guilt of knowing we could possibly infect another human being and potentially cause their death because we chose not to wear a mask?” (June 9, 2020: http://www.newmilfordspectrum.com).

Some contend that pandemic restrictions illegitimately infringe upon personal freedom.  However, our personal liberty ends and can be restricted when our actions pose the threat of harm to other people.  Legally, one is free to engage in skydiving and to take the concomitant risks of injury to oneself.  One is not legally free to run a restaurant with unsanitary conditions in the kitchen.

As Catholics, we emphasize respecting human life and espouse a consistent ethic of life.  The current pandemic is challenging us to put our pro-life commitment into practice in new ways. We make a special appeal to younger adults to undertake preventive measures, including social distancing and wearing a face mask.  At the very least, they can be an important line of transmission of the virus to vulnerable individuals at greater risk of serious illness and even death from the virus.

We commend to their attention a comment posted on an Ethics and Culture blog: “As Christians, demonstrating love for neighbor, we should be among the more cautious when it comes to life. It does us little credit when people who claim the name of Christ demand autonomous personal freedoms without consideration for the vulnerable. We should be willing to sacrifice our comfort and convenience for the sake of the health and lives of others.”

(May 16, 2020; http://www.ethicsandculture.com/blog/2020/on-our-moral-duty-to-wear-masks)

Dr. Idziak is a consultant for health care ethics and serves on the Medical-Moral Commission of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.