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Lessons for COVID From the Cold in Texas

A crisis is the chance to take what responsibility we can, in community.

The winter storm that descended on Texas this past week has offered some life-changing lessons. With power outages in my part of Houston lasting for 15 hours (and longer elsewhere), heat was sparse. The roads were iced over, with no salt trucks mobilized, throughout the city and surrounding communities. Although a Cleveland, Ohio, native, I had an initial feeling of almost utter helplessness. Normal societal function had been so quickly eliminated. 

As the worry about what to do percolated, the reality of needing to take ownership of the situation kicked in. Our neighbors joined together to assemble my in-laws’ generator. We went to three different homes in our neighborhood and drained the swimming pool filters and turned off water connections, in order to save pipes from freezing and bursting. The neighborliness Alexis de Tocqueville spoke about in Democracy in America came to be actualized. It is “the reciprocal action of men upon one another” that Tocqueville says lays the groundwork for building and preserving a real human community.

Much more could be said about this story, but it is important to see it as an analogue for the larger reality before us as a culture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are stuck in a nauseating condition of continuous lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, reduced business capacity, and school closures, as well as subject to the various non-pharmaceutical interventions (masks, social distance, etc.) that now shape our daily life. 

There is a palpable sense of despair and loneliness, and as people sit waiting for a vaccine, it seems that the avenues for pushback are increasingly bleak. But at the same time, just as I and other Texas residents have begun to rediscover, it is important to remind people that the perennial American virtue of responsibility and action is still within our grasp. We cannot let the lockdowns, or the passivity of public health management, make us believe that we are helpless. 

There are still unknowns about COVID-19, but we do know that the virus disproportionately affects the elderly and those who have significant metabolic issues. In light of this, we can make the case that being healthy is an act of resistance in a regime that seems to want to keep citizens sick and paralyzed with fear. There needs to be greater emphasis in our responses to this crisis on the fundamental role that increased immune and metabolic health plays in fighting against this virus.

The obvious first-line defense of metabolic health is sleep and exercise, but there are over-the-counter supplemental measures that can be taken against COVID, too. The success and increasing promulgation of the prophylaxis and early outpatient protocol treatment offered by a group of physicians in the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance is heartening to see. These physicians continue to highlight the substantive research showing the protective and enduring capacity of taking a daily regimen of Zinc, Quercitin, and Vitamins D and C in the fight against COVID. One of the physicians in this FLCCC group, Dr. Pierre Kory, testified in early December before a congressional committee on the effectiveness of a prescription drug called Ivermectin. As a result of Dr. Kory’s testimony, the National Institutes of Health rescinded its ban on the use of Ivermectin in the treatment for the disease  

Alongside personal measures, we can also improve our metabolic and immune health by rightly seeing the social character of human health. Our hyper-mobile, always-on-the-go modus vivendi is a significant factor in our cultural health decline. The more our lives are separated from the ceremonial activity of eating a meal with others at table, the more unhealthy we become. Instead of slowing down and cooking more wholesome, nutrient-dense foods, centered around the family and neighbors, we fill this social vacuum with food that we can consume at break-neck speed. The communal meal becomes replaced with eating as merely one form of consumption among various others. As this condition continues, we will only become sicker.

Not only do our bodies become sick with isolated consumption, but we become lonelier. The meal is the human focal point where our sociality is brought to life. The evisceration of thick social practices is, perhaps more than anything else, the greatest health risk we face. A 2006 study on the effectiveness of mitigation measures for controlling an influenza pandemic highlighted the fundamental relationship between human sociality and human health. It concluded with the following prophetic judgment: “Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted” (emphasis added).

The normal social functioning of the community has been undermined by the idea that we should “stay home, stay safe.” While offered with good intentions, the problem with this motif is that it has obscured a more substantive relationship between freedom and health, which the 2006 study rightly connects. Catholic professor of metaphysics D.C. Schindler argues that our common understanding “is a specifically unhealthy notion of health insofar as it considers a single aspect of health precisely without regard to the whole.” By emphasizing the purely material “it gives the parts primacy over the whole, rather than the reverse.” He argues that:

The very notion of health in the modern world represents a fragmentation or breakdown of wholeness. And in this case the irony becomes a tragic one: this unhealthy understanding of health, insofar as it informs our actions and so also our ordering of society, in a certain sense performs what it represents. The understanding itself fragments. In a word, the reductive notion of health causes disorder, which means that the very energies devoted to the pursuit of this health may turn out to be a profound cause of disease. (“The Healthy and the Holy,” Communio, Fall 2014: 549)

Government and public health policy will continue to emphasize the tropes of health and safety, but it will likely deliver on neither. Masks, social distancing, and the newly developed vaccines are held up as the only means by which we can achieve health. While these mitigation measures have some benefit, the reality is that they are, like the over-the-counter measures above, only supplements, and not substitutes, for human flourishing. 

Looking at 19th-century America, Tocqueville thought the most difficult task and challenge democratic citizens faced would be “the art of being free.” The COVID pandemic has brought this truth back to the surface. The good news, however, is that regardless of the regime we live in, be it good, bad, or somewhere in between, we still have the capacity to actualize the virtue of responsibility and life in community. This is the foundation of human flourishing, and a more true account of health.

Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

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